Semiramide is the last opera Rossini wrote in Italy. His operatic farewell is a monumental work, where each musical scene is enriched by orchestral introductions, extended, beautiful tempi di mezzo and the inevitable da capo. The Rossini Opera Festival presents, of course, an integral version, for a very long, exciting evening.

Salome Jicia (Semiramide) © Studio Amati Bacciardi
Salome Jicia (Semiramide)
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

Graham Vick moves the action from ancient Babylon to modern times, focusing on a psychoanalytical interpretation of the Shakespearian-like drama. Semiramide, the queen who killed her husband Nino with the help of her lover, Assur, wears the career woman standard uniform: pants suit, high heels and white short hair (costumes by Stuart Nunn). As a contrast the clergy, the high priest Oroe and his magi, are shown in a loincloth, skin painted in white and hair in dreadlocks: a primitive look. All the diplomats gathered at Semiramide’s court had their (presumed) country’s flag painted on their face, while the militaries, including Assur, for some reason showed the flag of Bahrain. Babylon was situated a long way to the north of modern-day Bahrain, so this choice seemed strange. The scene was dominated by gigantic images of Nino’s eyes, representing Semiramide’s guilt consuming her, a successful choice which helped telling the story.

Varduhi Abrahamyan (Arsace) © Studio Amati Bacciardi
Varduhi Abrahamyan (Arsace)
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

Other choices were less successful. Arsace, the young warrior chosen by Semiramide as her husband and king, is sung by a woman en travesti; Vick portrays Arsace as a woman, also in a power suit and high heels, like Semiramide. This gave a further lesbian kick to the incestuous flirting between Semiramide and Arsace (who is none other than her lost son Ninia, as it is discovered in the second act). The idea was not bad in itself, but it clashed badly with the constant references to Ninia as a boy: a pale-blue bed always visible in a corner of the stage, with blue covers and a blue teddy bear; the same pale-blue teddy bear, in gigantic size, appeared on stage at least twice (the audience giggled); the ladies-in-waiting, during the introductory chorus to “Bel raggio lusinghier”, cradled babies wrapped in blue in their arms. And, of course, the Ninia-double: a little boy (with a blue pyjamas, in case we didn’t understand he was, indeed, a boy) who Semiramide sees sleeping in the bed, running around on stage.

<i>Semiramide</i> © Studio Amati Bacciardi
Semiramide
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

Conductor Michele Mariotti did an extraordinary job with this immense score. From the overture, it was clear it would be an evening of musical marvels. Mariotti showed his total command of the RAI Orchestra, leading them through the long journey with an assertive, loving hand. His understanding of Rossini’s aesthetics shaped every crescendo, every change in dynamics and informed his unfaltering support to the singers, helping them do their very best. And their very best they did.

Salome Jicia was a very convincing Semiramide; her interpretation highlighted the shady, perverse nature of the Queen, her use of sexuality as a means to manipulate and submit. The edgy quality of her voice, together with her acting abilities, perfectly conveyed the lust for power, the arrogance, and the sheer entitlement of Semiramide. In the second-act duet with Assur (arguably the highlight of the evening), she used a dark, almost scratchy sound, which gave a perfect feeling of the Queen’s aggressive, feline sexuality, used to submit a powerful general. Her command of the Rossini style was impeccable, and her coloratura was secure and fearless.

Varduhi Abrahamyan, as Arsace, was an exciting female warrior. She tackled all the difficulties of the part, her coloratura always sparkling and precise, and her legato smooth and velvety. Her deep, bronzed mezzo was very suited to the part, and made a good mix with Jicia’s dark, strong soprano. After the first act duet, full of flirting innuendos, the second act duet was a memorable contrast. Mother and son recognised each other under the gloom of murder and incest: the embrace between Jicia and Abrahamyan was moving and emotional, and the two voices took an intimate, sweet, unique quality. It was a magic moment.

Varduhi Abrahamyan (Arsace) and Salome Jicia (Semiramide) © Studio Amati Bacciardi
Varduhi Abrahamyan (Arsace) and Salome Jicia (Semiramide)
© Studio Amati Bacciardi

Nahuel Di Pierro fought like a lion through the impossibly hard part of Assur. His elegant bass showed good legato and phrasing; at times he struggled with the fast, unrelenting coloratura, but in the end the character came out convincingly, in a successful performance. Antonino Siragusa, as Idreno, showed perfect command of the coloratura and the high notes. The emission, however, was very often too much in the nose, which didn’t help a voice that is not the most beautiful to start with, rendering his high notes very fixed and stiff. His performance was nevertheless very appreciated by the audience.

Carlo Cigni was a commanding, if a bit rugged, Oroe, the high priest; Alessandro Luciano as Mitrane and Sergey Artamonov, as Nino’s ghost, all contributed to a successful evening.

****1