Gioachino Rossini - Semiramide
L’Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy - 2017
Domingo Hindoyan, Nicola Raab, Salome Jicia, Franco Fagioli, Matthew Grills, Nahuel Di Pierro, Fabrizio Beggi, Inna Jeskova, Ju In Yoon
Culturebox - 11 May 2017
What a difference a voice makes. If you've watched more than one production of any opera, you'll already know that's a self-evident truth, but it isn't often you get the opportunity to compare two different productions of Rossini's Semiramide in close succession to see how it applies. Even a single viewing however is enough to realise why the work isn't put on too often; if you haven't got a singer of the calibre of Joyce DiDonato to sing the role of the Babylonian Queen - as in the recent Bayerische Staatsoper production - there's always the danger of Rossini's opera seria falling completely flat. The Opéra National de Lorraine however have some other ideas of their own about how to stage this difficult work.
The production of Semiramide at Nancy does indeed show what a difference a voice makes, but surprisingly, it's not where you might think. The Opéra National de Lorraine production actually has a very capable mezzo-soprano in the shape of Salome Jicia, who proves to be quite impressive in the role even if she doesn't have the extra spark that is needed to truly bring this work to life. The stage design and the direction in this production don't really have a great deal to contribute either in that respect, and it's doubtful that the production would have the necessary impact but for its casting of another role. Where this production takes its chances in its staging of Semiramide is in the casting of a countertenor for the role of Arsace: and obviously not just any countertenor, but Franco Fagioli.
Countertenors and contraltos or mezzo-sopranos can be interchangeable of course in many other works, but those are usually older baroque works where a female takes on the role originally written for a castrato, which for obvious reasons are no longer available to an opera house. In the case of Semiramide, the role of Arsace is a trouser role written for a contralto, so it is certainly rare and unusual (in a work that itself is rarely performed) to transpose the role over to a countertenor. The rationale for this I can only guess - perhaps Franco Fagioli was looking to extend his range into later repertoire? - but the results are fascinating and do change the whole dynamic and adjust the emphasis on where the heart of the work lies.
Whether it was done to find a new challenge for Fagioli or whether it was done purely for reasons of meeting the vocal requirements (superstar contraltos are thinner on the ground these days than countertenors I suspect), Fagioli does indeed make quite an impression. The Bayerische Arsace wasn't lacking the necessary qualities with Daniela Barcellona in the role, but with Franco Fagioli you have star quality and a voice that proves to be far more flexible to meet the very distinctive tessitura of the role. Fagioli is better placed to meet the considerable demands on the lower end of the register as well as navigating those tricky fluttering Rossinian sprints. His delivery of Arsace's arias is utterly rivetting to behold, his voice blending beautifully with the arrangements and in the Act II duets with Salome Jicia's Semiramide. The true effectiveness of his performance however is in how Arsace's role comes to dominate the proceedings.
The challenges of performing Semiramide convincingly go beyond merely being a star turn for the best singers of the day - although on that level alone it has to be admitted that it is a joy to hear performed as well as it is here. With Semiramide, Rossini was moving away from a style of opera that still had its roots in the baroque opera seria, and was developing into the form of Grand Opéra, so there are specific dramatic and theatrical requirements or conventions that are expected to be met in one way or another. Spectacle and entertainment are another factor, and on this level the Nancy production doesn't deliver quite as inventively as David Alden's recent Munich production.
The production doesn't set the opera in ancient Babylon but seems to settle for a period closer to the time of composition of the opera with - as a French opera production - an eye perhaps on the intrigue and downfall of the French royal court. It also establishes something of the play-within-a-play setting or semi-staged dress rehearsal for no particular reason that can be easily determined. A smaller stage is positioned to one side of the stage, with a rope pulley system and its own curtain. lowering Egyptian pillars with hieroglyphs as the queen acts out her declamations and announcements. The intrigues of Assur, Oroe and Idreno are carried out in the wings and develop on the stage, with a large mirror used to highlight when the characters reflect on what they see in front of them in the mirror and how it measures up to the image they have of themselves.
The direction of the acting is at least a little more naturalistic, leading to convincing characterisation without the old-fashioned operatic mannerisms that a work like Semiramide might attract. The musical arrangements under Domingo Hindoyan, a graduate of the Venezuelan musical education programme El Sistema, are a little bloodless, but it's hard to fault the performance for accuracy and pacing. Aside from the two main leads, the production also benefits from an excellent Assur in Nahuel Di Pierro. His voice carries force and authority, the singing clear and commanding, making Assur feel like a proper villain and not a caricature of one. The other roles are also very well sung and played with Fabrizio Beggi's Oroe seeming to be the manipulator here in a dual role that takes up the part of the Ghost of Nino. Matthew Grills also makes a good impression as Idreno, and Azema is sung well by Inna Jeskova although her role in the drama seems reduced here.
Links: L’Opéra national de Lorraine, Culturebox