Rossini’s Semiramide is such a monumental work that many an opera house would rather not bother to stage it. Of course, the libretto requires grandiose sets, but the real challenge is to cast four exceptional singers with absolute technical finish. It is rather curious then that Caramoor, a summer festival that takes place every year in a large estate in the State of New York, has jumped at the opportunity to stage such a fearsome opera.
Since 1997, the Festival has decided to concentrate on bel canto works – and Vivica Genaux has first established her reputation as a Rossinian there. Since then, she is a special guest and I imagine that the whole Semiramide venture has probably been created around her Arsace. Although her mezzo is not heroic as the writing suggests, her hallmark metallic chest register produces the necessary impact in this lower-seating role. Her impressive control of fast fioriture and her musical imagination enable her to decorate every repeat more extravagantly than before without ever trespassing the limits of style and good taste. She also has charisma and attitude to spare in this difficult male role.
Another guest of honor is tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who debuted both his Idreno and Nemorino (in L’ Elisir d’ amore) in this year’s festival. He sung both excruciatingly demanding arias with technical abandon, solid middle and low registers and effortless high notes. He too has impeccable taste – I know that many consider him Juan Diego Florez’s official “second cast”, but I sincerely doubt that the celebrated Peruvian tenor could actually sing the role better than Brownlee.
Assur used to be Samuel Ramey’s signature part and his many recordings have set a performance standard for this role. Although Daniel Mobbs does not exactly reaches this standard, he is probably the singer who has come closer to it. His forceful bass is extremely flexible, well-focused, dark, generous in its lower reaches and firm in its top notes. The sound is a bit noble for this villain role, but that is something one could say of Ramey too.
Angela Meade is something like America’s hidden secret in the world of opera. I have read about her for a while; the usual comment is “wonderful material, but still not ready” – something I could never say after seeing her Semiramide. It is clear that she has the potential to do something even more amazing than tonight; she is a young singer who has chosen roles carefully, but what she is already doing is enough to procure her the rank of the very best in the market. I feel like using the label “golden age”. The voice itself is extremely appealing – hers is a legitimate lirico spinto, creamy toned in a Margaret Price-like way with added Italianate qualities such as squillante top notes and rock-solid bottom register. When she unleashes her voice, it can be quite voluminous and, in the next moment, she dazzles in perfectly articulated coloratura, easy trills, floated mezza voce. And she also has natural feeling for the Italian language – and clear diction. Although her temper is not flashing, she knows how to seize the occasion when a dramatic emphasis is required from her. I found her phrasing expressive, she produced real seduction in Serbami ognor, grandeur in her duet with Assur and finally she was really touching in her second duet with Arsace, when she also proved to master the art of blending her voice with fellow singers. I cannot wait to see and hear her again.
Will Crutchfield is an expert in bel canto repertoire – he keeps rhythm flowing, plays all the theatrical effects and has an excellent ear to find the right pace for his singers and to help them when they need an attentive beat. Ideally, the score needs a larger group than the Orchestra of St. Luke’ s, which at moments seemed a bit strained with the effort of having to play at 100% in a long opera, but considering the acoustics (the Venetian Theatre is an open-air stage covered with a large tent, under which the audience is also seated), a chamber-like orchestra was the best idea. And these musicians played with real gusto and very much shared the dramatic atmosphere with the soloists. The small Festival chorus has also done a commendable job. I hope someone has recorded this performance – I am sure that someday one would regard it as highly as that recorded in other Summer festival in France some years ago .