Semiramide is a rare visitor to London. Opera Rara offered a splendid Prom in the Hanging Gardens of South Kensington last year, while the only time Rossini’s opera seria was presented in Covent Garden since 1887 was a 1986 concert performance starring June Anderson as the treacherous Assyrian queen and Marilyn Horne as Arsace, the warrior she makes her consort until she discovers he’s actually her son! Lengthy but full of melodic invention, Semiramide finally made her triumphant return to the Royal Opera in a fine new production seen earlier this year in Munich.

Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

David Alden is also a rare visitor to the Royal Opera. The American director’s only previous production here was La Calisto in 2008 (also a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera). Here he tackles the tangled Babylonian dynastic tale, based on a Voltaire tragedy, by giving it a contemporary twist, setting it in a modern Middle Eastern military dictatorship.

The plot can be tricky to digest. Fifteen years before the action starts, the wicked queen Semiramide (with the help of Assur) had bumped off her husband, Nino. Plagued by guilt, she is forced to name an heir, choosing the heroic officer Arsace as her consort unaware he’s really her long lost son. Arsace swears vengeance after Nino’s ghost puts in a Hamlet-like appearance. After a touching mother–son reconciliation, Arsace lurks in the mausoleum’s vault to slay Assur… only to strike his mother dead in error. Throw in a subplot – Assur, Arsace and an Indian king (Idreno) all love the princess Azema – and you wish you’d been taking notes.

Michele Pertusi (Assur) and Chorus © ROH | Bill Cooper
Michele Pertusi (Assur) and Chorus
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Alden and his designer Paul Steinberg give their production its eastern feel through Moroccan and Turkish tile designs, while the giant statue of King Nino is based on that of North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. It’s not just the East which is an influence; family portraits of Nino and Semiramide have an eerie Trump First Family feel, the king in shades and sporting a blonde quiff, and Buki Shiff’s vivid costumes often give Semiramide the striking look of Jackie Onassis. Azema, coveted like a trophy, is done up like an Oscars statuette, while the power-hungry Assur, sporting a jacket studded with medals, fanatically grips a globe like Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator. Assur’s axe-swinging guards look like members of the French Foreign Legion. It’s a collage of disparate ideas which don't always hang together well, but it often looks impressive.

Rossini’s score (slightly cut here) is terrific, full of melodic invention. Sir Antonio Pappano confirmed his pedigree as one of the world’s leading Rossini conductors with a performance that whistled along, right from its brusque, piccolo-tastic overture to the jolly chorus welcoming Arsace as king four hours later. Lithe string playing and chortling woodwinds were a delight, while the percussion was crisp.

Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) and Daniela Barcellona (Arsace) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) and Daniela Barcellona (Arsace)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Premiered at La Fenice in 1823, Semiramide was the final opera Rossini wrote for Italy before taking his wares to Paris. He sets huge challenges to his singers, yet it is more than just a vocal vehicle for star performers. Three of the principals from February’s opening at the Bayerische Staatsoper transfer to London and all three do so gloriously. The title role has traditionally been associated with powerhouse coloratura sopranos, headed by the astounding Joan Sutherland. But Rossini wrote it for his wife, Isabella Colbran, who many believe was essentially a mezzo-soprano with a high extension, so it was especially interesting to hear Joyce DiDonato take on the role. Her superb technique fizzed through the dizzying coloratura whilst, minus a laser-like soprano sting, there was real pathos and anxiety in her aria “Bel raggio lusinghier”. Daniela Barcellona’s peachy mezzo brought just enough contrast as Arsace, she and DiDonato vocally entwining in their exquisite Act 1 duet, crowned by pyrotechnics in “Alle più care immagini”. Their reconciliation scene was breathtakingly beautiful. Idreno is a role of secondary importance, but Lawrence Brownlee dispatched both his bravura arias as if swatting away flies, flinging out top notes with ease.

Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) and Lawrence Brownlee (Idreno) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Joyce DiDonato (Semiramide) and Lawrence Brownlee (Idreno)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Of the newcomers, Michele Pertusi’s Assur sounded ragged and it was no surprise when it was announced after the interval that he was unable to complete the performance. Mirco Palazzi, whom I heard both in the Opera Rara Prom and again in Florence last autumn, nobly stepped in at short notice. His bass-baritone is soft-grained but he delivered a powerful mad scene (proving they’re not just the preserve of coloratura sopranos). Bálint Szabó’s flinty bass suited Oroe, the high priest who reveals Arsace's true identity, and Jacquelyn Stucker was a bright-voiced Azema – pursued by a trio of suitors, but not important enough for Rossini to grant an aria.

With such stellar vocal performances and Alden’s stylish production, Semiramide is a Rossinian hot ticket.