Opera with which Rossini proved Beethoven wrong

Although the Quarterly Musical Magazine in 1823 described Gioachino Rossini as looking more like a “sturdy, beefeating Englishman” than a sensitive “fiery-spirited native” of sunny Italy, Semiramide (in Danish: Semiramis), composed that same year, encapsulates all the romantic allure that the journal found lacking in the man’s outward features. The occasion for the description was Rossini’s move to London on an invitation from the King’s Theatre.

While the ensuing London productions of Rossini operas such as The Barber of Seville and Zelmira failed to wow audiences, two others fared as hoped and satisfied the crowds. They were Otello and Semiramide.

The swansong of his career in Italy, Semiramide is Rossini’s operatic adaptation of a famous 1748 Voltaire tragedy, which in turn is based on the historical life of a 9th century Assyrian queen, Shammuramat. Rossini’s librettist Gaetano Rossi takes us to the cradle of civilisation, Mesopotamia’s Babylon (in current-day Iraq). Here we visit the Temple of Baal – a stone’s throw from the mythical Hanging Gardens – where the people await Queen Semiramide’s announcement of who will succeed her husband, the late King Nino. Two men, Idreno and Assur, the latter of whom was Semiramide’s accomplice in the nefarious murder of Nino, recommend themselves but Semiramide wants her beloved Arsace, a young soldier, to step forward. Arsace is late for the ceremony, and when he finally arrives he has no intentions of gratifying Semiramide’s wishes. The reason is he is in love with her daughter – an idea the egocentric queen is altogether unable to fathom.

When the ghost of the late king briefly appears to dispel all mystery surrounding his demise, Assur threatens to reveal Semiramide’s crime if she doesn’t make him king. Things do not grow less tense and unsettling when Arsace discovers the true identity of his mother and father. Without revealing too much here, audiences will observe that this is where the story goes from apparently channelling pre-bedroom scene Hamlet to the bits of Oedipus that so caught Freud’s interest.

Contemporary British opera-goers were, as mentioned, hospitable to Rossini’s latest opera seria (denoting a noble and ‘serious’, quasi-melodramatic style of Italian opera). Interestingly, though, the composer was in fact spiting none other than Ludwig van Beethoven, who had urged him to stay in the comical vein of his most popular work The Barber of Seville. “It’s unnatural for the Italian mentality to write serious operas,” he lectured at the height of Rossini’s Italian fame – a peculiarly rigid view for such a transcendent composer. Verdi, however, incidentally singled the work out as being crucial to his personal development as a dramatist.

Forget Beethoven’s scepticism. Although seldom performed nowadays, Semiramide has aged well despite its lack of light-hearted humour, and it’s not only due to the unforgettable orchestral compositions and numerous show-stopping arias. The story manages to capture aspects of culture that have shown their appeal and interest over time. One curious example is the titular character, who is universally recognisable and happens to bear more than a fleeting resemblance to none other than Alexis Carrington, played by Joan Collins in the ’80s popular soap opera Dynasty. Indeed, the set and costume designer Nigel Lowery has opted for several direct references to that character. Also, for the set design, Lowery has chosen to indicate the unavoidable rise and fall of states and cultures by introducing photographs of partially blasted Mesopotamian palaces, the results of corruption and barbarism.

Then there is the music. Brandishing the baton at the Copenhagen Opera is the multitalented conductor Israeli Rani Calderon, a fast emerging international phenomenon, who – if anyone can or will – appears able to bring about Semiramide’s deserved renaissance. He describes its arias as musical masterpieces, but also as individual make-or-break exercises. Intimidatingly, the singers will either find themselves equal to it – or not. Similarly, says Calderon, the choral singers have no choice but to rise to the occasion and reinvent themselves as actors – expressing real happiness, anxiety, horror – for the music to become ‘miraculous’.

Semiramide stars globally-acclaimed singer Henriette Bonde-Hansen in the charismatic, complex title role and also features the English bel canto tenor Barry Banks (playing Idreno), known from the Met in NYC. One can only hope that the attention created by the great forces behind will foreshadow further productions of this must-hear ‘song fest’.

Semiramide (Semiramis)
Operaen, Main Stage, 10 Ekvipagemestervej, Cph K; starts Thu, ends Jan 16; performances at 19:00 (unless stated) on Nov 22, Nov 25 (15:00), Dec 3, Dec 5, Jan 1, Jan 10, Jan 13 (15:00), Jan 16; tickets 125-895kr, billet@kglteater.dk, 3369 6969; foyer opens three hours before curtain time (bars one hour before); duration 240 mins, two intermissions; sung in Italian with Danish supertitles; www.kglteater.dk