Semiramide (Italian pronunciation: [semiˈraːmide]) is an opera in two acts by Gioachino Rossini. The libretto by Gaetano Rossi is based on Voltaire's tragedy Semiramis, which in turn was based on the legend of Semiramis of Babylon. The opera was first performed at La Fenice in Venice on 3 February 1823.
Semiramide was Rossini's final Italian opera and according to Richard Osborne, "could well be dubbed Tancredi Revisited". As in Tancredi, Rossi's libretto was based on a Voltaire tragedy. The music took the form of a return to vocal traditions of Rossini's youth, and was a melodrama in which he "recreated the baroque tradition of decorative singing with unparalleled skill". The ensemble-scenes (particularly the duos between Arsace and Semiramide) and choruses are of a high order, as is the orchestral writing, which makes full use of a large pit.
After this splendid work, one of his finest in the genre, Rossini turned his back on Italy and moved to Paris. Apart from Il viaggio a Reims, which is still in Italian, his last operas were either original compositions in French or extensively reworked adaptations into French of earlier Italian operas.
Musicologist Rodolfo Celletti sums up the importance of Semiramide by stating:
- "(It) was the last opera of the great Baroque tradition: the most beautiful, the most imaginative, possibly the most complete; but also, irremediably, the last".
After making his mark with a number of brilliant comic operas (most notably Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, Il turco in Italia, and L'italiana in Algeri), Rossini turned more and more to serious opera (opere serie). During the years 1813 (when Rossini composed Tancredi) until 1822 he wrote a considerable series of them, mostly for the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples.
One reason for his new interest in the serious genre was his connection with the great dramatic soprano Isabella Colbran, who was first his mistress, then his wife. She created the leading female role in Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1815), Otello (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto (1818), Maometto II (1820), and five other Rossini operas up to and including his final contribution to the genre, Semiramide, which was also written with Colbran in the major role.
Work began with the librettist in October 1822, composer and librettist taking Voltaire's story and making significant changes. Actual composition took Rossini 33 days to complete the score.
Following its premiere, the opera was given twenty-eight times for the rest of the season in Venice (and, at some point, for four nights in a row), and it went on to presentations throughout Italy and Europe, including Paris in 1825, Milan in 1829 and 1831, and Vienna in 1830. It reached London on 15 July 1824, was given its US premiere at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans on 1 May 1837, but it took until 3 January 1845, before it was performed in New York.
Other prima donnas emerged in the major roles by about 1825, since Colbran's vocal powers had greatly diminished by the time of the Venice premiere performances and she "was in no state to ever sing the role again". For 25 years after 1830, Giulia Grisi triumphed in the role notably in St Petersburg in 1849 and New York in 1854.
By the late 1800s, the opera had virtually disappeared from the repertoire. However, it appeared as part of the Cincinnati Opera Festival 1882 which was attended by Oscar Wilde and which featured the famous diva Adelina Patti who chose the aria "Bel Raggio" for her farewell performance. Also the Metropolitan Opera revived it in 1892, 1894 (with Nellie Melba), and 1895.
20th century and beyond
Although the overture is one of several of Rossini's to be widely recorded, the opera is only occasionally performed in modern times. Presentations at La Scala in Milan in September 1962 with Joan Sutherland and Giulietta Simionato required the re-assembly of the entire score from the Rossini autograph, since no other texts were known to exist.
While musicologist Philip Gossett notes that between 1962 and 1990 "some seventy opera houses have included the work in one or more seasons", it was not until the Met's 1990 revival after almost 100 years that a production based on a new critical edition was mounted. It starred Marilyn Horne as Arsace. In 2004, the opera was mounted in concert form by the Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vienna and Wiener Konzertchor. For recent productions, the database Operabase notes "22 performances of 5 productions, in 5 cities" since January 2012, but only two of the five were staged productions, the others being concert versions, including one given by the Rossini in Wildbad Festival in 2012, which was recorded with Alex Penda in the title role. 
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast, 3 February 1823
(Conductor: Antonio Cammerra)
|Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, widow of King Nino||coloratura soprano||Isabella Colbran|
|Arsace, Commander of the Assyrian army||contralto||Rosa Mariani|
|Assur, a prince, descendant of Baal||bass||Filippo Galli|
|Idreno, an Indian king||tenor||John Sinclair|
|Oroe, high priest of the Magi||bass||Luciano Mariani|
|Azema, a princess, descendant of Baal||soprano||Matilde Spagna|
|Mitrane, Captain of the Guard||tenor||Gaetano Rambaldi|
|Nino's Ghost||bass||Natale Ciolli|
Semiramide has its own overture, which was almost certainly composed last. Unlike many operatic overtures of the day, it borrowed musical ideas from the opera itself, thus making it unsuitable for use with another score. The range and balance of musical ideas, from the hushed, rhythmic opening through the Andantino for four horns (drawn from the opera itself) and the repetition with pizzicato countermelodies in the strings to the lively allegro, make the overture to Semiramide one of Rossini's finest contributions to the genre and deservedly one of the most popular.
Temple of Baal, Babylon
The High Priest Oroe invites all to enter the temple, and Babylonians (along with others from abroad, including Idreno the Indian King) do so carrying offerings to Baal. Assur states that the day has come for the Queen to choose a successor and he reminds all of his own valour. Idreno express surprise at Assur's aspirations and all express their individual concerns and fears.
Semiramide enters to the acclaim of all, but Idreno, Idreno, and Assur individually speculate as to who will be chosen. They press the queen to announce her decision, but at the same time Semiramide herself is fearful about making that decision, especially as she appears to be expecting someone's arrival. Suddenly, the temple is plunged into darkness and there is general consternation amidst fears of its imminent collapse. All desert the temple.
Arsace, who had been sent away from Babylon by his dying father, the former King Nino, enters. He brings with him a casket containing his father's relics, but he is puzzled as to why he has been called back to Babylon. He declares his love for Princess Azema who loves him, and he states his unwillingness to support Assur in his bid for the throne: (Aria: Eccomi alfine in Babilonia... Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento / "Oh, I shall ever remember the day of glory and happiness...").
Arsace asks to see the High Priest. Oroe enters, opens the casket, and exclaims upon seeing it that it contains the holy relics of the dead king. He hints to Arsace about some treachery had been involved. Seeing Assur approach, Oroe leaves with the relics. Assur arrives and questions the reason for Arsace's return. The two men discuss Azema, with Arsace reaffirming his love for her (Duet: Bella imago degli dei / "Beautiful, divine image, Azema alone do I adore") while Assur states that he too loves her. "You have no idea what love is", the younger man tells the older: (Aria/duet: D'un tenero amor / "That fierce heart of yours is not capable of tender love...")
The entrance hall of the palace
Azema enters, happy that Arsace is now in Babylon. Idreno follows her and asks for her hand; she tells him that this must be Semiramide's decision. "What of your heart?", he asks assuming that his rival can only be Assur. Scornfully told that it will never be Assur, Idreno is comforted, although he expresses his desire "to punish the wicked boldness of a rival" and continues to express desire for Azema: (Aria: E, se ancor libero / "And, if your fair heart is still free, at least feel some pity in your breast...")
The Hanging Gardens
Having fallen in love with Arsace and believing that he loves her, Semiramide waits for his arrival: (Aria: Bel raggio lusinghier / "A beautiful, enchanting ray of hope and contentment has shone for me at last"). The oracle had predicted his arrival, so it confirms her in the belief that she will find love with Arsace. However, when he arrives, he alludes to his love for Azema without specifically naming her, but he also declares that he will die for his queen if necessary. Semiramide still believes that he really loves her: (Aria: Serbami ognor sì fido / "Keep your head and your affections ever as devoted to me"). They leave separately.
The Palace Throne Room
All enter to await Semiramide's arrival and her announcement of her choice of consort. Arsace, Idreno, Oroe, and Assur all swear to obey her command: (Ensemble: Semiramide, Arsace, Idreno, Oroe and Assur: ( Giuri ognuno, a' sommi Dei / "Let each of you swear to the most high gods to obey my commands..."). She demands loyalty to the man she chooses and they are told that he will also be the queen's husband. When Semiramide names Arsace as her chosen one, Assur is outraged and Idreno accepts the decision but requests Azema's hand, which is granted. After asking Oroe to unite Semiramide and Arsace, Semiramide is horrified by the uproar which emits from the close-by tomb of King Nino: (Aria: Qual mesto gemito Da quella tomba / "What a melancholy groaning from the tomb there..."). All are horrified as King Nino's ghost appears, warning of the crimes to be expiated, telling Arsace that he will reign and to respect the High Priest's wisdom, and commanding him to come down into his tomb. Each character expresses his or her own anguish.
A hall in the palace
In a brief encounter, Mitrane warns the royal guard to keep Assur under surveillance and not to allow him to leave the palace. Then Semiramide enters, followed shortly after by Assur.
Conflict between the two soon emerges. She reminds him of that it was he who gave the cup of poison to Nino, thus causing his death, and he reminds her that it was she who had prepared it: "Who handed me the cup of death?" he asks. Recalling that at that time she had a son, she speculates that he might have been killed by the same man who killed Nino. Assur continues to pressure Semiramide to make him king. In turn, she threatens to reveal the crime, and they sing an extended duet: (Se la vita ancor t'è cara / "If you still hold life dear, go, get yourself out of my sight") recalling the terror and retribution that each could inflict upon the other if the true facts came to light. Semiramide continues to demand that Assur acknowledge Arsace as his king.
Rejoicing is heard in the distance, and while Semiramide regains some of her former happiness, Assur becomes resigned to his fate.
Arsace's father's tomb
Oroe and the Magi are assembled in the tomb. The High Priest urges Arsace to come forward but makes him aware that there may be some unpleasant news awaiting him. Upon his arrival, Oroe tells him that he is Ninia, Nino's son, who had been saved by Fradate (one of the priests) and brought up as his own. Aghast at this news, Arsace then learns that Semiramide is his mother. To reinforce this news, Oroe hands him a scroll, the reading of which confirms the Priest's statements. The final blow comes when Assur reads Nino's words: "Assur was the traitor".
Almost collapsing in grief into Oroe's arms, he asks for comfort: (Aria: In sì barbara sciagura / "In such barbarious misfortune"), but the priests quickly reinforce his need to take immediate revenge. They equip him with armour and a sword and give him the determination to proceed: (Aria: Si, vendicato, il genitore / "Yes, my father avenged"). Sword in hand, Arsace leaves.
Azema and Mitrane are alone, the former complaining that she has lost everything now that Arsace, the love of her life, is due to marry the queen. Entering, Idreno overhears this and is distraught. Azema promises him her hand if he so desires it, but he wishes that she would love him: (Aria: La speranza più soave / "This soul of mine once entertained the fondest hopes"). Two choruses of Maids, Lords, and Indians lead them all to the temple.
In the temple
Semiramide confronts Arsace, who finally hands her the scroll which has revealed all. Horrified, she then understands Arsace's real identity, and becomes remorseful, offering herself to his revengeful blows. He swears filial loyalty, expressing the wish to spare his mother: (Duet: Ebben, a te... Giorno d'orrore... Madre, addio! / "Well then - go on, strike; fulfill a god's behest!/ Let the gods vent their entire wrath upon me first"). Together, they each accept the reality: (Giorno d'orror! E di contento / "Day of horror...and of joy!"), but Arsace declares that he must go to his father's tomb and take whatever action is necessary. Knowing what is in store, Semiramide urges him to "Return to me victorious".
Adjacent to Nino's tomb
Defiantly, Assur enters and proclaims that this will be Arsace's last day on earth. Learning from his men that the people have turned against him, he still vows to kill Arsace. He moves towards the tomb only to find some unknown force, some apparition holding him back: (Deh ti ferma...Que numi furenti / "Oh, stay, be pacified, forgive"). His men urge him on, but still the apparition remains in his mind. His men are puzzled, until he seems to recover and then, with his men beside him, vows to fight on: (cabaletta: Que' Numi furenti, Quell' ombre fremente / "Those wrathful gods, those quivering shades").
Along with Oroe, Arsace enters the tomb. He awaits his rival. Assur enters, also awaiting Arsace. Then Semiramide comes in to pray at Nino's tomb, asking for forgiveness and protection for her son: Aria: Al mio pregar t'arrendi: il figlio tuo diffendi / "Yield to my prayer: protect your son"). In the confusion of the darkness, all three - Arsace, Semiramide, and Assur - express some bewilderment as to the loss of their courage at this crucial moment: (Trio: L'usato ardir / "My wonted daring, my courage, where has it gone?"). But in the darkness and seeking to strike Assur, Arsace strikes Semiramide as she steps between them to stop the fight. Surprised to learn Arsace's real identity, Assur is arrested, Semiramide dies, and to general acclaim by the people, Arsace reluctantly accepts that he shall be King.
Opera House and Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra and the Ambrosian Opera Chorus
Cat: 475 7918
|Jesús López Cobos,
Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Aix en Provence Festival Chorus
(Audio and video recordings of performance(s) at the Aix-en-Provence Festival
|CD: Premiere Opera Ltd,
Cat: CDNO 161-2
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus
(Audio and video recording of a performance at the MET)
|CD: Celestial Audio
Cat: CA 135;
DVD: ArtHaus Musik
Cat: 100 222
Orchestra of the Teatro Communale, Bologna and Prague Philharmonic Chorus
(Recording of the critical edition at a performance at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro)
|CD: Ricordi/Fonit Cetra
Cat: RFCD 2018
London Symphony Orchestra and Ambrosian Opera Chorus
|CD: Deutsche Grammophon
Cat: 437 797-2
Bernadette Manca di Nissa,
Juan Diego Flórez
Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vienna and Wiener Konzertchor
(Recording of a concert performance in the Wiener Konzerthaus, 14 March)
|CD: Nightingale Classics
Cat: NC 207013-2
Teatro Real, Madrid Orchestra and Chorus
(Video recording of a performance in the Teatro Real, Madrid, April)
Virtuosi Brunensis and the Poznan Camerata Bach Choir,
(Recorded at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival, 2012)
- Raymond Monelle 1992, Semiramide redenta: archetipi, fonti classiche, censure antropologiche nel melodramma, Music & Letters, 73(3), pp. 448—450
- Marita P. McClymonds 1993, Semiramide redenta: archetipi, fonti classiche, censure antropologiche nel melodramma. Notes (2nd Ser.), 50(1), pp. 139–141.
- Osborne, Richard 1990, "Farewell to Italy: Semiramide" in Rossini, p. 302
- Guido Johannes Joerg 1991, Booklet accompanying ArtHaus DVD, p. 27
- Celletti, quoted in Migliavacco, p. 92
- Osborne, Charles 1994, p. 112
- Osborne, Charles 1994, pp. 113-114
- Migliavacco 1998, p. 84
- Migliavacco 1998, p. 92
- Philip Gossett 2006, "Scholars and Performers: The Case of Semiramide", p. 178
- Gossett 2006, pp. 169–199: He recounts the entire history of the creation of the critical edition and how it was used in the 1990 production.
- Performances listed on operabase.com since 1 January 2012
- Osborne, Charles 1994, p. 111
- Migliavacco 1998, p. 78
- Nightingale CD libretto, p. 43
- Conlan DVD subtitles
- Conlon, DVD libretto, p. 95
- Gossett and Brauner 2001, p. 790
- Libretto sources: Nightingale Classics CD libretto, and the action played out in the Image Entertainment DVD.
- Recordings on operadis-opera-discography.org.uk
- William Ashbrook 1994, "Semiramide: Gioachino Rossini", The Opera Quarterly, 11(1), pp. 151—153. (Retrieved from oxfordjournals.org, a subscription service)
- Tim Ashely 2013, "Rossini: Semiramide—review", The Guardian (London), 7 August 2013
- Celletti, Rodolfo (1983), A History of Bel Canto (pub. as Storia del belcanto), Discanto (1983) and Oxford University Press, 1996, in translation. ISBN 0-19-816641-9
- Gossett, Philip (2006), Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006 ISBN 978-0-226-30482-3 ISBN 0-226-30482-5
- Gossett, Philip; Brauner, Patricia (2001), "Semiraminde" in Holden, Amanda (ed.), The New Penguin Opera Guide, New York: Penguin Putnam. ISBN 0-14-029312-4
- Migliavacca, Giorgio (1998), "Semiramide: Apogee, Decline and Renaissance: the True Phoenix of Belcanto", Booklet accompanying the Nightingale Classics CD.
- Osborne, Charles (1994), The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 0-931340-71-3
- Osborne, Richard, Rossini (1990), Ithaca, New York: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-088-5 ISBN 1-55553-088-5
- Osborne, Richard (1998), "Semiramide", in Stanley Sadie, (Ed.), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. Four. London: MacMillan Publishers, Inc. 1998 ISBN 0-333-73432-7 ISBN 1-56159-228-5
- Toye, Francis (1947), Rossini: The Man and His Music, Dover Publications, 1987. ISBN 0486253961 ISBN 0-486-25396-1