As the Rossini year comes to a close, Teatro La Fenice joins the celebrations with a new production of Semiramide, which premiered in this very theatre in 1823. Semiramide is a shrine to the past, to a musical and singing style that was inexorably going out of fashion, to which Rossini decided to bid his farewell with a monumental composition of staggering beauty.

Jessica Pratt (Semiramide) © Michele Crosera
Jessica Pratt (Semiramide)
© Michele Crosera

The plot follows Voltaire’s tragedy: Semiramide murdered her husband, King Nino, with the help of her lover, Assur, and has ruled Babylon ever since. As the curtain rises 15 years later, she has fallen for the young warrior Arsace; she plans to marry him and make him king. Arsace is himself in love with Azema, princess of royal blood, pursued also by the ambitious Assur and by Idreno, a visiting Indian prince. Arsace and Semiramide misunderstand each other’s hopes and feelings; the question of what exactly happens between them remains unanswered. As Semiramide announces to her people that she intends to marry Arsace, the underworld gives a terrifying sign: King Nino’s ghost raises from the dead and demands revenge.

The production by Cecilia Ligorio set the story outside of any timeframe, showing, in the first act, simple scenery shining with gold. The people were in white costumes and turbans, the priests in black, and Semiramide in an elegant black and white gown with golden accents: the whole of Babylon reflected in its Queen. Oroe, the high priest, was portrayed as a blind man, which highlighted his prophetic role, while the priests were represented by female dancers, who gave some dynamics to the scene with their sinuous, stylish movements. The visual impact of the first act was unobtrusively beautiful.

Alex Esposito (Assur) © Michele Crosera
Alex Esposito (Assur)
© Michele Crosera

The second act plunged us into darkness. Set inside King Nino’s tomb, where Arsace learns that he is Nino and Semiramide’s long lost son, the scene became darker, the chorus veiled in black. In the end, Arsace, Semiramide and Assur wander in a darkness broken by sparse, dim spotlights, like ghosts appearing and disappearing, until Arsace, in a last, gruesome turn of events, kills his mother by mistake.

La Fenice approached this work with a respect bordering on awe, presenting an integral version in all its Wagnerian length. Riccardo Frizza led the resident orchestra and chorus with heroic strength, setting the stage with a wonderful overture, full of details, nuances and a judicious crescendo. His reading of the score tended to highlight the more modern aspects of Rossini’s music: the pre-Romantic inspiration rather than the Baroque structure. At times the dynamical range seemed too narrow, but the overall performance of the chorus in particular was impressive.

Teresa Iervolino (Arsace) and Jessica Pratt (Semiramide) © Michele Crosera
Teresa Iervolino (Arsace) and Jessica Pratt (Semiramide)
© Michele Crosera

Jessica Pratt’s Semiramide was a stern, unsympathetic tyrant, consumed by guilt and remorse, confident in her seduction of Arsace. Her bright soprano was spectacularly high and bright in its upper register, where she concentrated her efforts, producing exciting variations with great precision. Her middle register, albeit less strong, served her well in her raging passages. During “Bel raggio lusinghier”, several male servants were serving her with lavish kisses and caresses, giving a whole new meaning to the stratospheric coloratura in the finale.

Arsace was Teresa Iervolino, whose bronzed, deep mezzo and sparkling coloratura were a delight. Her cavatina was exciting, albeit she didn’t sound as confident as the role requires, her young age (barely 30) probably the culprit. But it was in the second act that she truly shone: when Arsace learns who he is, and that his mother has murdered his father, she managed to produce a sob, a natural sigh in her voice for which I was unprepared, and I found myself in tears. The following duet with Pratt, where the shadows of incest and murder gloom over the mother-and-son reunion, was ravishing, a beam of light in the darkness. A minor mistake (a missed entrance, maybe one or two beats) served only to remind us that they are indeed human.

Alex Esposito (Assur) and Jessica Pratt (Semiramide) © Michele Crosera
Alex Esposito (Assur) and Jessica Pratt (Semiramide)
© Michele Crosera

Alex Esposito confirmed the great impression he gave as Assur in Munich last year: he has grown more confident in the part, his coloratura was perfect, and his acting extremely convincing. He tended to slip into histrionics, but overall his performance was one of the joys of the evening. His mad scene was enthralling; he is a rock-solid singer with great musical and theatrical understanding.

The tenor part of Idreno is extremely high and difficult, and Enea Scala tackled it with courage and confidence. His technique was spotless, his Rossini style impeccable. The colour of the voice was perhaps not the most beautiful, but his performance was nonetheless remarkable. Simon Lim sang a commanding Oroe, while Marta Mari, Enrico Iviglia and Francesco Milanese all contributed to a great performance.

*****