Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Semiramide, Opera in two acts (1823)
Semiramide – Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Arsace – Marilyn Horne (mezzo)
Assur – Joseph Rouleau (bass)
Idreno – John Serge (tenor)
Oroe – Spiro Malas (bass)
Azema – Patricia Clark (soprano)
Mitrane – Leslie Fyson (tenor)
Nino’s ghost – Michael Langdon (bass)
London Symphony Orchestra/ Richard Bonynge
rec. 1965, Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London
Decca 4757918 
The success of this recording in 1965 probably contributed as much to the revival of interest in the serious operas of Rossini as anything else at the time. Hearing it today, with nearly 60 years of exposure to performance practices for these operas, can be a frequently thrilling, but also quixotic experience.
Joan Sutherland, in her heyday, would be my choice for the most phonogenic female voice in the history of recorded music. Rarely has one ever heard such a blend of secure technique, gleaming tone and warmth of personality, in a single artist. The fact that she maintained these attributes at high level throughout her recording career is proved by taking out any one of her recordings to marvel at all over again. The role of Semiramide seems to have suited her to a T, although in comparison to Norma, she did not get to sing it onstage nearly as often. For this recording her voice was perfectly limpid and clear and finds her tossing off nearly every challenge confidence and flair. In truth, the role of Semiramide was written for a singer in the high mezzo range, so much of the vocal line lies rather low for Sutherland this necessitates a few alterations of the vocal line to flatter her voice. “Bel raggio lusinghier” is simply breathtaking and includes cadenzas that Richard Bonynge has written for her which display her gifts with poise and glamour. Dramatically her Semiramide is more of a gentle siren rather than a femme fatale. Recently, singers such as Alex Penda, on the Naxos recording (review), are more into highlighting the darker side of this flawed Queen. Sutherland was often criticized for her diction which can be most uneven, for example, the words of the duet “Serbami ognor” are fairly mushy, but in the recitatives, her pronunciation is perfectly clear. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to her distance from the microphones.
Marilyn Horne’s Arsace is caught just when she was still a rising star in the world’s opera houses. She wouldn’t make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera for another 5 years after this recording was made. Her voice is captured at the point when her rich, firm mezzo was still tinged with a soprano-like cast to her tone. In her arias and duets her lower range is full of sap and is well-projected, whereas in later years her lower voice took on a chesty, almost huffy sound to be heard on many of her recordings. Here, her ability to toss off the most rapid-fire roulades is astounding, and makes her the ultimate match for Sutherland. Together Horne and Sutherland combine to produce a feast of bel canto bliss, particularly in the duet “Giorno d’orrore”, which is the single finest example of the bel canto school of singing that I have ever encountered.
It is with the rest of the cast that the listener starts to wish for something more than this recording can provide. Joseph Rouleau has a beautiful sable-coloured bass, and he brings much authority to the role of the villain, Assur. Unfortunately he is simply not up to the role’s demands for agility. The fine grain of his voice is most attractive and it makes him more sympathetic than usual in his Mad Scene, but his lowest notes simply do not project well (even to a microphone), and his coloratura is graceless.
Much the same could be said for John Serge’s Idreno. His voice starts off with an appealing tone of unusual clarity but as soon as he runs up against a sustained note it takes on a terrible bleating quality. Rossini’s music is not suitable for his voice. His big scene in the First Act is cut, but he keeps the one in the Second Act, shorn of its recitative. He is slightly more flexible in the coloratura than Rouleau, but the lack of beautiful tone is a huge handicap here. Spiro Malas is a rather grand sounding Oroe. Apart from some lightness in his lowest range he generally displays a firm vocal line and is a strong, authoritative presence. Michael Langdon puts in a nice cameo as the Ghost of Ninus.
Richard Bonynge paces the music with a fine sense of what is stylish without going into overindulgence of the singers. Frequently his tempi run at a surprising clip. He can deliver excitement when called for, and seems to be at his best in the various choruses which do a good deal of musical scene setting of ancient Babylon. He sustains the tension marvelously over the very long First Act Finale; this is no small achievement. The London Symphony display grace and a fine sense of presence, aided by the clear recording which presents them and the soloists in a reasonably spacious acoustic.
Ultimately one should have a copy of this recording in one’s collection if only to hear two of the most remarkable singers of the 20th century at the top of their game but Rossini performance practice has come a long way since 1965, and an uncut recording, which takes a more scholarly approach to Rossini’s score is highly desirable. The Naxos recording, made live at the Rossini festival in Bad Wilbad is likely the best choice, or possibly the DG recording under Ion Marin with Cheryl Studer and Jennifer Larmore is a somewhat hard-driven, studio-based alternative.
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