Semiramide is the last opera Rossini wrote for the Italian theatre. First heard at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice in February 1823 after an unusually long period of preparation by Rossini and his librettist Gaetano Rossi (the librettist of Tancredi), it is a Rolls Royce of a piece: classically proportioned, superbly engineered, unashamedly grand. What is more, there are dangerous reserves of power concealed behind the opera's outwardly sedate exterior. The exterior is the old opera seria style writ large; but Voltaire's plot draws on powerful dramatic archetypes. (Semiramide, Assur, and Arsace are not far removed from the likes of Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet.) To an extent, Rossini's music powerfully reflects this.
There has only ever been one complete (or more or less complete) recording of Semiramide, the one made by Decca in the winter of 1965-6 with Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Joseph Rouleau and the LSO conducted by Richard Bonynge. The set is now available at mid price in Decca's Grand Opera series and it remains one of Sutherland's—and Bonynge's—finest achievements on record. It has other strengths, too: a strongly characterized Assur from Rouleau and Horne's Arsace—though, as Jennifer Larmore brilliantly demonstrates on the new DG set, a case was waiting to be made for an even more sharply-drawn portrait of this mettlesome royal warrior.
Textually, Semiramide has never been problematic. Rossini's autograph manuscript is for the most part splendidly clear. What problems exist over individual words or notes are mainly nugatory, though it is nice to have them cleared up in the new DG recording which is based on the Fondazione Rossini's 1990 Critical Edition edited by Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda.
If there has been a problem with Semiramide it is the cuts that have appeared in printed editions and found their way into accepted theatrical practice. The Decca recording is not blameless in this respect, though its only substantial omission is the first of the two (dramatically dispensable) arias for the Indian King, Idreno. Decca cast the tenor John Serge as Idreno, and though he makes a decent enough stab at Idreno's later aria ''La speranza piu soave'' he is completely outclassed by DG's Frank Lopardo. Sung with such elegance and searing brilliance, Idreno ceases to be a peripheral figure.
Textually, then, the new DG set is spick and span. I wouldn't say that it is at all points better recorded (there are times when Samuel Ramey is too far from the microphone) but the special effects—the Commendatore-like appearance of the ghost of murdered King Ninus, or the off-stage band (here authentically scored)—work much better on DG than they do on Decca where both Ninus and the band are remote to the point of being indistinct.
So how good is the new DG performance? Well, it is not as well conducted as the Decca set. Bonynge on Decca not only understands the singers' every need, he also has an unerring feel for the neo-classical structuring of the piece. DG's Ion Marin is neither as ruthless nor as reckless as his astonishingly crude account of the overture might suggest. He has fire in his belly (which seems to suit Jennifer Larmore who rides the Marin orchestra better than anyone) and he is single-minded enough to hold the big ensembles on course. But too often there is a conscripted feeling about the LSO's playing (compare this with the buoyancy and zest of their response to Bonynge) and there is no doubt that the singers are often disadvantaged by him.
The Semiramide is Cheryl Studer. By now, her versatility should come as no surprise to us. Here is a wonderful interpreter of Salome who has also proved herself to be a vocally credible Lucia di Lammermoor. Certainly, in the opening pages of Semiramide's cavatina ''Bel raggio lusinghier'' one marvels at the clarity and grace of the singing as well as at the fineness of the characterization: love, terror, and bemusement all finely touched in. Only later in the cavatina, as the pace quickens at ''Dolce pensiero'', do doubts begin to arise. Here Marin presses on, crudely, guilelessly. There are here none of those fine elisions of tempo and tone that Bonynge achieves as part of that famously symbiotic collaboration with his wife. In the end, Studer's account of the cavatina is less radiant than Sutherland's, more mechanically driven, the ornamentation not always as unerringly right as Sutherland's seems to be.
Studer and Larmore are well contrasted vocally as queen and young soldier. They are also less inclined to dream their way through the duets. Sutherland and Horne are more sensuous; Studer and Larmore more openly intense. Studer is especially fine in the prayer at the tomb in the final scene; but then so is Sutherland.
Samuel Ramey has sung the role of the murderous usurper Assur on many occasions in the last 12 years. In the earlier part of the opera, where Rossini characterizes Assur largely through some often very florid writing in ensembles Ramey is superb. Decca's Joseph Rouleau is relatively arthritic by comparison. But things change in Act 2, first in the duet with Semiramide (shades of the Macbeths) and later in Assur's mad scene, written by Rossini for the great Fillipo Galli. Here, where the writing is less florid, the characterization more direct, Rouleau comes into his own: a wonderfully theatrical performance, coloured and declaimed in a way that Ramey's is not. At least, not here.
In fact, Ramey has already recorded Assur's Act 2 Mad Scene as part of a disc of Rossini scenes and arias he made for Teldec in 1991 with the WNO Orchestra and Chorus under Gabriele Ferro. Better conducted, with a more focused recording, it seems the more representative performance. In the central delirium, where Rossini gives Assur a series of unaccompanied outbursts—the music anticipating the king's delirium in the Banquet Scene in Verdi's Macbeth—Ramey is needlessly hustled by Marin. Indeed, Marin seems more interested in the prompt arrival of the next orchestral salvo than in the expressive potential of the declamation itself. As a result, half a dozen crucial shadings go by the board. Things settle down in the lyric F minor agitato, though you have to go to Bonynge or, best of all, to Ferro on the Teldec recital disc, to hear the sense of mental travail there is there in the syncopated accompaniment.'