Rossini's Semiramide represents a benchmark in Italian opera: considered to be the last Baroque opera, it is a monumental, complex work, featuring ravishingly beautiful, intense music. The duets are the true gems of this composition; the parts where the drama develops and the characters express their conflicting and extreme emotions finding their dramatic three-dimensionality.

<i>Semiramide</i> © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Semiramide
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

The new production by David Alden sets the action in a modern, generic Middle Eastern dictatorship, rather than in ancient Babylon. The iconography reminds the audience of Soviet states, or perhaps North Korea, with the dead king's personality cult taking the place of religion itself. A giant statue of the murdered ruler towers in the temple among high priests (magi) in Muslim robes and turbans. The opera is thus turned into a topical reflection on the power struggle between the political and the religious castes. A large portrait of the King with his wife and child, showing an uncanny resemblance to the US First Family, looms over the scene. The modern production does justice to the unchanged plot, and the very attractive costumes by Buki Shiff add to the visual impact.

In Semiramide, Rossini demands impossible feats from his singers: infinite breath, fast and crisp coloratura, and, at the same time, dramatic interpretation of extreme emotions. To set up a production of Semiramide, you need no less than four of the best singers in the world and an intelligent conductor who deeply understands Rossini. The Bayersiche Staatsoper has put together just that.

Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide)
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

Michele Mariotti extracted from the Bavarian State Orchestra a truly authentic Rossini spirit: the necessary lightness and the intensity. The overture was remarkable; perfect in the dynamics, with an amazing crescendo, and in the highlighting of the different instruments. Mariotti was relentless in his support of the singers, with a constant mutual understanding, a unity of purpose, and of musical interpretation, which gave an overall uniformity to the performance.

Joyce DiDonato is making her role debut as Semiramide in this production. It was written for Isabella Colbran, an alto with great extension, but has been hijacked by coloratura sopranos since the Rossini Renaissance. Today, it sounds strange to hear a mezzo singing it. Her interpretation was extremely dramatic and intense. Hers is a troubled, broken queen, whose old crime (her husband's murder) has marked her whole existence. She hopes against all odds to find happiness by marrying the young warrior Arsace, only to be hurled into the middle of a Freudian nightmare (Arsace turns out to be her son). Her vocal performance was brilliant, marked by a wonderful legato and sparkling coloratura – every asset of a true bel canto artist. Some high notes may have been a bit stretched, but overall, her performance was astounding.

Daniela Barcellona (Arsace) and Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Daniela Barcellona (Arsace) and Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide)
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

Daniela Barcellona, in the trouser role of Arsace, is another singer who finds in Rossini the best medium to express her incredible vocal qualities. Her voice is not perfect. Sometimes it lacks uniformity, and her timbre can change as it traverses the passaggio, but her technique is incredible. Every note is supported, the coloratura is fast and brilliant, the legato is flawless, and her projection is amazing: she sang the second aria perched inside an alcove at the very bottom of the stage, and her voice came through as if she were over the pit. On stage, Barcellona is fearless. She has a confidence, an absolutely irresistible swagger in her delivery. Her voice's (minor) imperfections are completely eclipsed by her vocal prowess and her dramatic interpretation.

Making his debut in the role of Assur was Alex Esposito, and he came through with flying colours. A true Rossinian singer, he has obviously thoroughly prepared the role, both from a vocal and from a dramatic standpoint. His coloratura was even more impressive than that of the rest of the cast; it is much harder for a bass to be that precise and fast than it is for a higher voice. Esposito's Assur was a psychopath, whose life was also marked by the crime he shared with Semiramide, which resulted in a different, more violent neurosis. Vocally, he was an extremely commanding general, bullying everybody in sight with well calibrated "roars", or intense whispers in a terrifying mezza-voce.

Lawrence Brownlee (Idreno) and Galeano Salas (Mitrane) © Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper
Lawrence Brownlee (Idreno) and Galeano Salas (Mitrane)
© Wilfried Hösl | Bayerische Staatsoper

The role of Idreno was interpreted by Lawrence Brownlee, one of the leading Rossini tenors today. His first aria was cut, unfortunately; he gave a truly remarkable performance in the surviving one, which he sang with a quirky Bollywood dance in the background. The most astounding characteristic is how easy, almost nonchalant, he sounds in his coloratura and high notes. The cavatina at the beginning sounded so easy that it was almost an anti-climax, but it is actually viciously difficult, requiring enormous breath capacity and agility.

The cast was completed by Elsa Benoit, Simone Alberghini, and Galeano Salas, all very good singers who contributed to a deserved success.