NEW YORK—Gioachino Rossini’s 1823 opera “Semiramide” was highly popular in its day, but in the past century, performances have been few and far between. One reason may be that it is difficult to find singers who can handle the demanding bel canto style and the dramatic requirements of this work. The Metropolitan Opera has just brought back the opera for the first time in 25 years with a cast that had the audience breaking into applause for each aria, duet, and ensemble piece before the music even ended.
The libretto is based on Voltaire’s play “Semiramis,” about a true-life queen of ancient Babylon (now Iraq). The events in the Italian opera (in which her name is Semiramide) are mostly fabricated, with scenes reminiscent of “Oedipus,” “Hamlet,” and “Macbeth.”
The action begins after the assassination of King Nino and the assumption of power by Semiramide, his widow. The heavy of the piece, Prince Assur, wants the throne. Arsace, the commander of the army, is in love with Princess Azema, but then so are Assur and Indian Prince Idreno. Azema goes for the warrior.
Semiramide throws a wrench in all their plans by announcing that she is going to wed Arsace and that he will become king. Nino’s ghost appears to warn that, although Arsace will eventually take the throne, before that happens an unnamed person must be sacrificed.
At the beginning of Act 2, Assur reminds the queen that she had conspired with him to kill her husband. He expected that his reward would be to step into the king’s shoes, but Semiramide rejects him.
There is another surprising event when Oroe, the high priest, reveals to Arsace that he is Ninia, the long-lost son of the queen. He also informs Arsace that, according to a scroll by the dying Nino, his mother (Semiramide) and Assur committed the regicide.
When Arsace reveals all to Semiramide, she not only calls off the marriage but entreats him to kill her as punishment for killing his father and her husband. Arsace can’t bring himself to kill his mother and even asks the gods not to punish her.
At Nino’s tomb, Assur learns that his plan to gain the monarchy has been foiled. He decides to murder Arsace but momentarily goes mad. After he regains his sanity, he goes back to his earlier plan.
In a Babylonian version of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Arsace, guided by the high priest, enters the vault to battle Assur. Semiramide is there as well, intending to save her son (and former fiancé).
In the dark, Arsace mistakenly kills the queen. Arsace then orders Assur to be arrested—one wonders why that idea didn’t occur to him before—and, to the cheering of the populace, becomes the new king.
John Copley’s production benefits from a spectacular cast. Soprano Angela Meade is a powerhouse in the title role, handling the technical and dramatic demands with aplomb. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong is Arsace, which would be characterized as a trouser role if the Babylonian men wore pants. DeShong deserves to emerge from “Semiramide” as a star.
There are three bass roles, all sung with distinction: Ildar Abdrazakov is the sneering Assur, Ryan Speedo Green is the high priest Oroe, and Jeremy Galyon is the ghost of King Nino. Sarah Shafer makes a promising Met debut as Princess Azema.
As Idreno, Javier Camarena proves once again, with his spectacular high notes, that he is one of the top bel canto tenors in the world.
The conductor Gareth Morrell (Maurizio Benini conducts the rest of the run) led a vigorous performance and the chorus (under Donald Palumbo), which has an unusually large role in the opera, was superb.
If you don’t know “Semiramide,” this production will convince you that it’s a major work.
“Semiramide” will be broadcast live to theaters around the world on Saturday, March 10, 2018, at 12:55 p.m. Eastern Time.
The Metropolitan Opera
30 Lincoln Center Plaza
Tickets: 212-362-6000 or MetOpera.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Closes: March 17
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.