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"Semiramide - La Signora Regale"

Anna Bonitatibus, mezzo-soprano
La Stagione Armonicaa; Accademia degli Astrusi
Dir: Federico Ferri

rec: Nov 19 - 22 & 25 - 29, 2013, Budrio (BO), Teatro Consorziale
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88725479862 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (1.30'15")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Andrea BERNASCONI (1706-1784): Semiramide (1765) (Ah non è vano il pianto, aria); Francesco BIANCHI (1752-1810): La vendetta di Nino (1790) (sinfonia); Giovan Battista BORGHI (1738-1796): La morte di Semiramide (1791) (Figlio diletto e caro, aria); Antonio CALDARA (1670-1736): Semiramide in Ascalona (1725) (Introduzione; Povera navicella, aria); Charles-Simon CATEL (1773-1830): Sémiramis (1802) (Dance No. 2); Manuel GARCÍA (1775-1832): Semiramis (1828) (Già il perfido discese - Al mio pregar t'arrendi, rec & aria); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Semiramide riconosciuta, pasticcio (ed. Leonardo VINCI) (1729-33) (Fuggi dagl'occhi miei, aria); Niccolò JOMMELLI (1714-1774): Semiramide riconosciuta (1741) (Barbaro - Tradita, sprezzata, rec & aria); Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864): Semiramide (1819) (Più non si tardi - Il piacer, la gioia scenda, rec & canzonetta con coro)a; (1768?-1798?): La morte di Semiramide (1792) (Fermati! Il ciel minaccia - Deh sospendi ai pianti miei - Serbo ancora un'alma altera, rec & aria con coro)a; Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740-1816): La Semiramide in Villa (1772) (Serbo in seno il cor piagato, aria); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Semiramide Regina dell'Assiria (1724) (Vanne fido, e al mesto regno, aria); Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868): Semiramide (1823) (Serena i vaghi rai - Bel raggio lusinghier, coro & cavatina)a; Tommaso TRAETTA (1727-1779): Semiramide (1765) (Il pastor se torna aprile, aria)

Not only mythological characters have exerted a great attraction on librettists and composers; so have historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Nero. However, it is not always clear whether a character figuring in an opera is historical or a product of fantasy. An example of such a character is Semiramis. It is virtually impossible to distinguish fact and fantasy here. The article on Semiramis in Wikipedia opens with this sentence: "Semiramis (...) was the legendary wife of King Ninus, succeeding him to the throne of Assyria". Later on, in the paragraph 'Historical figure', we read: "While the achievements of Semiramis are clearly in the realm of mythical Greek historiography, the historical Assyrian queen Shammuramat (Semiramis), wife of Shamshi-Adad V of Assyria, certainly existed. After her husband's death, she served as regent from 811–806 BC for her son, Adad-nirari III." That sums up the dilemma pretty well.

Anna Bonitatibus has done extensive research into the character and the music which was inspired by her. In her introduction in the booklet she writes: "Semiramis, 'Superwoman', builder and warrior, the 'Venus' of Mesopotamia, wife and queen, widow and mother. Who in reality is this heroine who has been celebrated and condemned through centuries of wide-ranging pursuit of knowledge?" If one looks for a definitive answer, one will be disappointed. Even Ms Bonitatibus seems not to have a clear answer. In her essays 'The Royal Lady', 'The Legend' and 'The Myth' she doesn't come up with the solution. What is most important in this production, obviously, is the music. Ms Bonitatibus mentions that more than one hundred compositions are inspired by Semiramis, from Semiramide in India by Francesco Sacrati (1648) to Semiramis by Michael Hamel (1983), "a long journey that portrays every aspect of this first Queen of the Orient, delivering her once and for all from the dark moralistic mantle that in spite of herself has shrouded her over the course of the centuries".

Considering that so many compositions are connected to Semiramis, it is probably not that surprising that nearly all arias which Anna Bonitatibus has selected are recorded here for the first time. For this production the music was selected from the period 1725 (Caldara) to 1828 (García). From a stilistic point of view it seems a wise decision to exclude older repertoire, especially considering the required instruments and the way of playing. That said, the classical and early romantic arias are the most convincing parts of this production. The programme opens with Introduzione and the aria 'Povera navicella from Caldara's opera Semiramide in Ascalona which is a little too coarse.

Especially interesting is that the character of Semiramis is approached here from different angles. The earliest operas, from the second half of the 17th century, focus on the mysterious and exotic. Pietro Metastasio's libretto is more in line with 18th-century rationalism. The "events preceding her birth" and her "quasi-divine nature" are avoided. Metastasio does refer to them, but only to "remove the implausibility of her fabulous origins". His libretto was parodied, for instance in Paisiello's intermezzo La Semiramide in Villa of 1772, on a libretto by Gaetano Martinelli. In his play Sémiramis Voltaire introduced a ghost: the queen has killed her royal consort Ninus and his ghost appears and asks for revenge. This approach to the story did appeal strongly to the composers of the early romantic era. In the booklet Davide Verga analyses at length the various ways Semiramis has been portrayed in operas from the 17th to the early 19th century.

Not only are most arias world premiere recordings - only the recitativo e canzonetta con coro 'Più non si tardi - Il piacer, la gioia scenda' from Semiramide by Giacomo Meyerbeer has been recorded before - but we also find several hardly known composers in the programme. Among them are Andrea Bernasconi, Francesco Bianchi and Giovan Battista Borghi. Charles-Simon Catel is also not a household name, but apparently the producers were not aware that Hervé Niquet recorded Sémiramis (Glossa, 2012) as the Dance No. 2 is marked as a world premiere. Rossini's Semiramide is certainly not unknown, but here an early version of the cavatina 'Bel raggio lusinghier' has been recorded for the first time.

One can only admire a singer like Anna Bonitatibus who has spent so much time and energy in this project. The programme justifies her efforts as we not only get an interesting picture of the various ways librettists and composers have treated the subject, but also become acquainted with several composers who hardly ever figure in concerts and recordings, let alone that their operas are performed at the modern opera stage. That neglect is unjustified, considering the quality of what is offered here. One would wish opera houses, singers and conductors would broaden their horizon instead of performing the same operas over and over again. Maybe a project like this can give some of them an idea. I could imagine that Ms Bonitatibus' colleague Cecilia Bartoli has served as a model for her project as she also has done much research of her own in various projects.

Unfortunately she seems also to have modelled her way of singing after Ms Bartoli's. Her diction is better, but even so the text is often hard to understand due to her incessant and wide vibrato on virtually every note. As interesting as the programme is, the singing is hard to swallow, and if you are allergic to Ms Bartoli's singing you better stay away from this production as well.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Anna Bonitatibus
La Stagione Armonica
La Stagione Armonica

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