When the rude mechanicals enact “The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby,” Bottom and Snug mispronounce King Ninus’ tomb as “King “Ninny’s Tomb”.
There is no mistaking King Ninus’ Tomb in Semiramide as a scene for slapstick comedy. Gioachino Rossini’s opera is as serious as a heart attack.
Most people are not familiar with the Voltaire play on which the opera is based. The plot is a hodgepodge of tropes from many and various classical dramas.
As with Hamlet, the drama builds upon the prior murder of the old king by his wife, Semiramide, (Angela Meade) and her lover, Assur (Ildovar Abdrazak). As with The Merchant of Venice and Turandot, candidates for the queen’s new husband must compete for her hand. Here the rivals are Assur, Idreno (Javier Camerena), and a young prince, Arsace (Elizabeth DeShong). The selection ceremony is presided over by the high priest, Oroe, (Ryan Speedo Green). When Semiramide chooses incorrectly, the old king’s ghost returns, splitting the earth, as does Mozert;s Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni
When a letter is produced from the old king naming his murderers, revealing Arsace as his long lost son, and demanding death to his murderers, the priest begins to assert his authority to restore order in the kingdom. Eventually King Ninus’ ghost gets his wish, Arsace both avoids marriage to his mother, Semiramide, and is crowned as the new king.
All the while this twisted plot unfolds, some of the most complicated vocal music ever written is sung with wonderful musical accompaniment, before huge settings, and within sumptuous costumes.
From the first notes of the overture, led magnificently by maestro Maurizio Benini, the audience was enthralled by the musical pyrotechnics. The vocal coloratura embellishments and ornamentation devices – roulades, trills, and cadenzas – must have been so demanding that the singers had no time to devote to creating characterizations. The lone exception was Ryan Speedo Green’s priest, whose developmental arc moved from demur to commanding, as he took the welfare of the state into his own hands as the action progressed. (By the way, the Governors’ School of the Arts graduate was seen in his home town by a rather large contingent of proud area opera fans.)
The Met’s Semiramide was a great surprise. It held our attention from the first notes and unfolded through some of the most glorious and mind-boggling singing one could ever hope to hear.