Semiramide (1991)
Image Entertainment
Cast: June Anderson, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, Sanford Olsen

Voltaire’s "Sémiramis" was already almost a century old when librettist Gaetano Rossi adapted it relatively faithfully for Rossini’s 1823 opera to debut at La Fenice in Venice. Voltaire’s own source was antiquity, a trace of history and whole lot of myth. The once-influential drama concerned the founding Queen of Babylon, increasingly troubled by her part in having disposed of her husband in order to assume sole rule. A complication somehow resulted in misplacing their son, Ninias. All this is by way of background because, as is the custom with French drama and opera alike, most action occurs either in the past or off-stage. A youth Arsace (Ar-SAH-chay) has distinguished himself in battle on behalf of the State and been summoned by the Queen. Semiramide (Say-meer-RAH-me-day) is smitten by Arsace, but he has little time to sort out his feelings before both learn to their horror that he’s her long-lost son, Ninias.

The Italian City States could prove pretty thin-skinned when it came to what was and was not suitable subject matter for opera, the entertainment of choice for the 19th Century’s popular audiences. "Semiramide" appears not to have so much as raised an eyebrow. Matters political, like peasant upstarts, tended to be lots more of a concern than incest. And anyway, no matter what shady doings transpired here, all treachery and deviation was duly punished in the end.

A wordsmith like Salvatore Cammarano could paint delectable word pictures around which to spin melody, as in "Il trovatore" (’D’amor sull’ali rosee’). Rossi offered his composer little more than standard issue vocabulary. This banality proved to be no handicap whatsoever to Rossini. The composer eschewed lyric distinction in words (along with pretty much anything else at all compelling in the way of theater!) to allow for an unimpeded showcase for some of his most ornate vocal and orchestral writing.

Rossini’s strongest influence is Mozart’s more senior works, like a bit cribbed from "Don Giovanni" for the apparition conclusion to Act I. Some choral work even sounds like an up-and-coming Verdi. But overall there’s no mistaking a Rossini opera. The syncopation and voluptuousness of his Act I finale is one hundred percent Rossini. The score’s richness suggests that this production has taken advantage of augmentations recently discovered.

Although this show is Rossini on a decidedly good day, the opera’s static nature may well help to account for its rarity on stage. Ultimately, it is probably less the want of action in this opera than its vocal demands that makes it so little performed. "Semiramide" is a torture test for the voice. For nearly four hours, this burden is borne largely by four protagonists, either individually or collectively. Vocalists with the right combination of dexterity and stamina are not common. The dream cast assembled for the Metropolitan Opera performance of 1992 preserved here on DVD fills this bill.

There is no question that June Anderson is up to the demands. She is justly renowned in the role of Semiramide. True, her physical expression is of the semaphore variety and this declamatory style tends to betoken limited involvement in characterization. But, hell…sometimes a fabulous voice is all we need or dare hope for. Buh-ruther! when June Anderson launches into ’Bel raggio lusinghier,’ she’s right up there with the best who’ve ever scaled this aria’s heights. Anderson’s spirit takes wing and leaves that wriggling body behind. She’s right up there in the heavens.

Marilyn Horne’s earliest preserved performance was not on an opera stage but rather a soundstage in Hollywood. She was the vocal component of Dorothy Dandrich’s "Carmen Jones." Less commonly known is that Horne was also the voice of Helen in Ross Hunter’s film of "Flower Drum Song," ghost-voicing the show’s most haunting number, ’Love, Look Away.’ "Carmen Jones" was a 1955 release, so considering "Semiramide" was recorded nearly forty years later, we have to marvel. It is simply phenomenal that we need allow her no latitude whatever in vocal precision, power and stamina. The authority in Horne’s voice is total, particularly in its lower register. Her duets with Anderson feature ideal rapport and expressive unity. When Horne gives a ’we-are-the-champion’ gesture during the final curtain, we can see this is clearly a personal triumph for this veteran.

Baritone Samuel Ramey is noted for his skills in the coloratura repertoire. He exhibits somewhat more effort than his colleagues in negotiating Rossini’s vocal writing, though, and his reach in the lower register is strained. Ideal Rossini tenors are as scarce as hen’s teeth, but we have one here in Stanford Olsen. Debate used to rage over the term ’squillo,’ which seemed to infer a voice forced beyond its natural capability. Yet Olsen seems to exemplify this term as interpreted positively, namely an essentially lyric tenor whose voice extends to the heroic. When you factor in his effortless coloratura, you have masterful singing.

It is rare when the balance of instrumentalists in an orchestra is absolutely ideal. With his quicksilver response to the score, conductor James Conlon gives us Rossini at its most effervescent, a "Semiramide" distinctly French in style. This is legitimate enough since the opera had a noted Paris debut, retooled to French taste. (Leading composers of the era were only too eager to oblige; Paris was Big Time, a Mecca, like Broadway is for musicals.) Truth to tell, however, this opera cries out for cheap thrills to bring it to life. The magic you anticipate just doesn’t reach its fullest potential without the excitement that the Latin temperament would bring it. But if you’re prepared to settle for the discipline of near-perfect vocal and orchestral accord, this performance has already made its case for you.

Amongst the classic international behind-the-camera ensemble for this video event is Jay David Saks, a veteran producer of original cast recordings and, at the time of this production, a decade of Live from the Met telecasts. Does the soundtrack’s mix here reflect Saks’s original intentions? Both the 5.1 soundtrack and the 2-channel set to surround situate the viewer within the orchestra with the stage ensemble frequently predominant in the rear speakers. This effect is disconcerting and logically wrong, though the immersive feel has undeniable appeal. In DVD’s earlier days, the 2-channel mode usually yielded dull audio. Not so here. I liked its ultra-clean sound, which sacrificed nothing to surround depth. A passage may be barely a whisper in a blanket of hush, when it will all at once crest to tidal wave proportions. With this opera transcription’s finesse and breathtaking dynamic range, I’d go so far as to qualify it as the finest I’ve yet heard on DVD in terms of transparency, detail, immediacy and vigor.

John Copley has been a mainstay at the Royal Opera Covent Garden for decades. While his productions are conventional, the payoff is often in perception as he probes within the libretto for insight ordinarily overlooked. There’s not much of that happening here. To make matters worse, Copley seems perversely bent on rendering "Semiramide" a virtual oratorio. For instance, under Copley’s direction, she walks on and just stands stock still for five minutes for her Grand Entrance. This contradicts the choral throng singing the praises of their advancing monarch! There’s no shock value whatsoever when Semiramide sheds her veil, yet there’s potential for excitement all there ready to happen as well.

Given what he has to work with in terms of drama, video producer Brian Large is limited in his own account of the performance on video, though more frequent and longer close-ups might have helped. This 1992 Japanese NHK co-production probably represents Large’s first foray into HDTV. Perhaps the medium had evolved insufficiently, just as wide screen tended to hamstring producers and directors with its serious limitations when first introduced to movies in the early 50s. That said, Large’s camera stands transfixed upon three vocalists during the extended trio penultimate to the opera’s climax, yet the dynamism of his perspective alone belies the fact that they are practically an oil painting!

Rossini himself is no help in respect to his opera as drama since he shapes its musical structure less in an arc than a series of climaxes, particularly during the conclusion of the mammoth first act. This poses less of a problem for the audience’s collective bottom if it is prepared for the show’s storyline. I was unable to get the subtitles to work at all on my set top player though they were the default on my PC player. The PC subtitles themselves pooped out toward the end, but if you’re not attuned to the bel canto repertoire, you’d not have gotten this far anyway! The plotting of "Semiramide" is pretty formulaic, but what action is there is meaningful. A modestly detailed synopsis would have been a helpful addition to subtitles.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to explore on DVD Rossini rarities undreamt of just two decades ago. A handful of the comic operas have sustained a varying range of exposure, but Rossini’s dramatic operas have languished unheard in all but the odd European House. "Semiramide" is an exception thanks largely to its first audio recording with Joan Sutherland/Marilyn Horne. Now titles like "La donna del lago" and "William Tell" have made DVD a happy showcase for a master’s works long overdue for reevaluation.

’Semiramide"’s four hours fit all on one side! The production nevertheless comes through in vibrant color and detail in an enhanced 1.85:1 image mostly free of picture noise. Rare instances of artifacting in the darker scenes are not distracting. Chapter settings are many, but often insensitive. The initial cue for Act II, for instance, begins well after the curtain’s rise.

"Semiramide"’s original 1992 telecast was the first in my experience from a high-definition source. My appreciation at the time was offset by qualifications I’ve outlined here, but more than this, I knew that watching it on cable just didn’t cut it. I could not have anticipated DVD, but I did vow to reserve unconditional surrender to it pending a more worthy video delivery medium. It was a long wait, but it was worth it.