The production photos look good. Italian director Luca Ronconi, who died last year, had an eye for a striking image. His 2011 production of Rossini's Semiramide at Naples' Teatro San Carlo, staged here at Opera di Firenze by Marina Bianchi and Marie Lambert, is aesthetically handsome, drawing on Classical antiquity. In the very first scene, the high priest Oroe addresses the priests of Baal from atop a column before a backdrop of cracked marble. But the action is often merely a set of friezes, singers immobilised on a pair of moving plinths: Rossini as a game of musical statues.

Oleg Tsybulko (Oroe) and Silvia Tro Santafé (Arsace) © Simone Donati | TerraProject
Oleg Tsybulko (Oroe) and Silvia Tro Santafé (Arsace)
© Simone Donati | TerraProject

To aid Ronconi's stylish vision, the chorus is banished to the pit, while a handful of actors – often seen from the torso up – emerge from beneath the set as priests or attendants. Writhing, near-naked dancers accompany the Queen of the Babylonians as she makes her entrance. Mummies taunt Assur, the wicked Prince of Baal who poisoned King Nino (with Semiramide's aid) years before the start of the opera, into his mad scene. A precarious arrangement of giant cracked mirrors provides Semiramide with opportunity for self-reflection in Act II as she discovers that Arsace, the soldier she has declared both her heir and consort, is in fact her son. Nino's ghost (amplified too lightly) intones his instructions to Arsace after his transparent coffin descends from the flies.

Mirco Palazzi (Assur) and Tonia Langella (Azema) © Simone Donati | TerraProject
Mirco Palazzi (Assur) and Tonia Langella (Azema)
© Simone Donati | TerraProject

But it's all so static. Ronconi often plonks his singers on a plinth which slowly glides in front of the set. The sleeping Princess Azema is manoeuvred about the stage on a remote-controlled marble slab, which lurches and clunks and shudders to a halt while Assur and Arsace wrangle over who should marry her.

Florence's new opera house has a cavernous, completely uncovered pit and the Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale enjoys a bright sound in the lively acoustic. Antony Walker drew spirited playing, negotiating the long Rossini crescendos in the famous overture with fine gradation of dynamics. He was never less than attentive to his singers, ensuring they were never swamped by the orchestra. The chorus sang very well, especially the men. Singing from the front of the pit, facing the stage, they still made a mighty sound.

Jessica Pratt (Semiramide) © Simone Donati | TerraProject
Jessica Pratt (Semiramide)
© Simone Donati | TerraProject

This is the first time Semiramide has been staged by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino since 1968... when a certain Joan Sutherland sang the title role. Jessica Pratt has built her entire career singing the bel canto repertoire championed by Sutherland and she does it very well. Her showpiece aria “Bel raggio lusinghier” demonstrated exquisite pianissimi and a fearless, laser-like attack on some incredible top notes (even if they were sometimes clung onto slightly longer than good taste would dictate). There is – as there was with Sutherland – a hollowness to her lower register, but this was an impressive performance. Hampered by a green 1980s bouffant rock chick hairstyle, she nonetheless retained an imperious demeanour.

Mirco Palazzi's Assur impressed me at the Opera Rara Prom at the start of this month. Where the concert format restricted the scope of his mad scene, he was far more wrenching here. His soft-grained bass doesn't make him sound a conventional baddie, but he made his way around the tricky coloratura neatly.

Jessica Pratt (Semiramide) and Silvia Tro Santafé (Arsace) © Simone Donati | TerraProject
Jessica Pratt (Semiramide) and Silvia Tro Santafé (Arsace)
© Simone Donati | TerraProject

Juan Francisco Gatell sounds like a decent Mozart tenor, but was pushed by Rossini's higher tessitura, feeling for some high notes, literally standing on tiptoe but not always quite reaching them. Both Idreno's arias were retained and he earned a very enthusiastic response from the upper levels of the house. There was a promising Azema from Tonia Langella. What a shame she is excess to Rossini's requirements and earns no aria. But then, a Semiramide with only minor cuts like this one – in Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda's critical edition – clocks up the hours. Ending past midnight, Rossini simply had no room for subsidiary characters.

The best singing of the evening came from Silvia Tro Santafé as a terrific Arsace, a mezzo with a distinctive balsamic tang and plenty of power. She sounds incredibly like the great Greek mezzo-soprano Agnes Baltsa and possesses the same lithe agility. Her Act II aria “In sì barbara sciagura” was an example of the highest quality singing, with smooth legato and tasteful ornamentation. Santafé's duets with Pratt were splendid, blending very nicely for two such contrasting voices, earning kisses blown from the pit by the conductor. Bel canto singing at its very finest.