Semiramide is the kind of opera I usually struggle with for all sorts of reasons, maybe the same reasons many people struggle with opera full stop.
It’s long. We’re not talking Wagner-long, which means long, but the action is continuous, constantly moving, rarely repeating. Nor is it grand-opera-long, which means four of five acts but few individual acts of epic proportions. No, this is just long-long, which means two acts; one very, very, very long (almost two hours) and one just very, very long (an hour and a half).
Then there’s the plot. If you reduce it to a list of ‘this is what happens’ it’s essentially nonsense. You’ve got your classic mother-falling-in-love-with-her-long-lost-presumed-dead-son – who is, naturally, sung by a woman. You’ve got your dead authority figure risen from the grave to scare the bejesus out of everyone in a portentous manner (always a winner). There’s a convenient letter, there’s always a convenient letter, to fill in plot details at the crucial moment. You get the picture.
It’s the perfect ‘park and bark’ opera; basically a chance for drama to take a back seat while a series of singers stand at the front of the stage and sing beautifully at the audience. But then you’ve got Rossini. Glorious Rossini. And you’ve got Antonio Pappano, conducting an orchestra and chorus who sound like they’re playing music they were born to play, written by a composer who was born to write it, conducted by a guy who knows exactly how to make a four hour opera feel like a three-and-a-half hour opera (he’s brilliant but he’s not superhuman).
Of course, that’s not enough. You also need some decent singers. Say hello to Daniela Barcelona, Michele Pertusi and Lawrence Brownlee, a truly powerful trio of voices who understand this music superbly. Make no mistake, this is world class stuff. Ludicrous though the plot is, on the face of it, it’s full of drama, big and small, intimately explored and delivered by singers at the very top of their game.
And then…and then…you get Joyce DiDonato. I’ve never heard a singer inhabit a role the way she does; vocally, musically, dramatically, humanly. Even if she parked and barked she’d be worth turning up for, but you get the whole package. Singers like Joyce DiDonato (and I say that like there are lots of singers like Joyce DiDonato – there aren’t) are why opera exists. They’re why composers write the works in the first place, why conductors like Antonio Pappano get out of bed in the morning and why people like me turn up at 6:30 and joyfully sit in a dark room for four hours with 2,000 strangers to listen to a weird stories with long lost (presumed dead) sons, portentous ghosts and convenient letters in them. And this on a night when the stage manager was sent out after the interval to inform us Joyce was feeling unwell but wanted sing on. Could she beg our indulgence? Of course she could. If she’s this good when she’s feeling peaky I’d love to hear her on top form (I have and it’s jaw dropping).
Nights like these are why I love opera. They’re why I come to opera houses full of hope, even on nights when I’m not really in the mood, and sometimes, just sometimes, leave four hours later grinning from ear to ear, feeling human, glad to be alive and glad I live near an opera house producing work this good.
Semiramide runs until December 12th at The Royal Opera House and will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on January 7th 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website.