Semiramide review – Rossini sounds sublime in Alden’s eccentric staging

Outstanding performances by Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee and Daniela Barcellona illuminate David Alden’s occasionally cluttered vision of Rossini's rarely performed Semiramide

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Semiramide Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Voices perfectly blended … Joyce DiDonato (centre) in the title role with Ludovic Gwyther as her son and Daniela Barcellona (right) as Arsace in Semiramide at the Royal Opera House, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Rossini’s great 1823 tragedy Semiramide, his last work composed for Italy before he based himself in Paris, was deemed a masterpiece in the 19th century, but fell out of fashion for much of the 20th. David Alden’s staging is the first at Covent Garden since 1887, though the opera was heard there in a series of concert performances in 1986. If Alden’s contribution is at times eccentric, the evening also contains performances from Joyce DiDonato, Lawrence Brownlee and Daniela Barcellona that are indisputably great.

Alden has reimagined Rossini’s Babylon as a modern dictatorship, where DiDonato’s guilt-ridden Semiramide struggles to maintain authority as her world crumbles around her. The drama plays itself out in a series of ostentatious corridors of power, where presidential portraits of Semiramide’s murdered husband hang on the walls. A massive, totalitarian statue serves for the god Baal. Buki Shiff’s costumes evoke both Middle Eastern opulence and North Korean militarism, though Brownlee’s Idreno, visiting from the Ganges, is a Mughal raja. The first half is unnecessarily cluttered, and includes such quirks as the captive Azema (Jacquelyn Stucker) bound in what looks like a gilded straitjacket, and the ghost of Semiramide’s husband rising, Dracula-like, from his coffin. The second half is simpler, allowing the music to speak more easily – and speak it unquestionably does.

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Source: Opera News from the UK Guardian