Michael Tanner

Passion killer

David Alden has the task of persuading us that we are witnessing a drama – and he doesn’t succeed

Passion killer
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Royal Opera House, in rep until16 December

The late arch-Rossinian Philip Gossett regarded Semiramide as a neoclassical work, vaguely and alarmingly suggesting to me a musical equivalent of Canova, a sculptor I detest. Actually, I don’t think the terminology is helpful. Nor is Semiramide monumental in the way that the programme book suggests. There is a notable lack of ensembles and of anything except accompanied recitative and arias. The duets are as rare as in Handel, and come as just as great a relief. The culminating duets in Act Two are as balm to the soul. They even remind one that there is such a thing.

Semiramide is called ‘a tragic melodrama’, and derives from a play by Voltaire, but the librettist was also influenced by Metastasio, so with two such baneful sources it isn’t surprising that as a drama it doesn’t seriously begin to exist. There is no possibility of giving a damn about any of the characters, even when they are portrayed with such liveliness as in this musically superb account. Warwick Thompson, in the most helpful essay, writes: ‘The opera falls between two stools: on the one hand it has its roots in an Italian celebratory piece with a happy ending, and on the other, a French tragedy with somewhat sketchy motivation.’ To put it more brutally: if you aren’t a canary fancier, stay away.

David Alden has the task of persuading us that we are witnessing a drama, but since I can’t imagine Semiramide yielding up any significance of that kind, he has to construct — in the way that contemporary directors are only too happy to do — a work of his own imagination, and somehow fit in the singers and their songs. If he doesn’t succeed, he does at least provide, with the collaboration of the set designer Paul Steinberg and the costume designer Buki Shiff, something that is often agreeable to look at, though working out how it relates to the characters is not rewarding. The staging, with a gigantic statue of a Leader some of the time, is probably a contemporary corrupt Middle Eastern country, and the drop curtain features exquisite Turkish and Moroccan designs. Some of the exiguous furniture looks as if it is imported from a GDR museum. The drama that is framed in this way, with the obligatory complicated side plot, is one of dynastic struggle, with the title character apparently a decent ruler, though she did have her husband murdered before the story opens. Is the ending, with the wrong throat slit, tragic or an accidental victory for justice? Who cares? There is not one moment in this opera where one feels anything for any character. How different Rossini could be in my favourite of his operas, La gazza ladra!

No surprise that Joyce DiDonato, in the title role, is ideal, as she is, so far as I know, in everything she does (especially the new recording of Les Troyens, in which she sings Didon). But I found Daniela Barcellona as Arsace, Semiramide’s son, even more striking, and look forward to seeing her in a serious role. Idreno, responsible for some of the plot’s more bemusing intricacies, is the stunning tenore di grazia Lawrence Brownlee, who electrified the house with his ardent but nonchalant flights into the vocal empyrean. Michele Pertusi as Assur, descended from Baal, was not in the best vocal shape, though committed, in Act One, and was replaced worthily in Act Two by Mirco Palazzi. Antonio Pappano and his orchestra were on top form, with the pinpoint precision this music required — and wonderful horns in the Overture. Four hours of bliss for those whose Mecca is Pesaro.