Opera in Concert closed 2002 with a well-prepared and very dramatically sung performance of Rossini's Semiramide. First performed in Venice in 1823, Rossini wrote this exotic opera seria with his first wife, the singer Isabella Colbran, in mind for the title role. It's a sprawling work, long on self-consciously showy vocal writing though short on making dramatic sense. This is, after all, ancient Babylon, conceived in a tragedy by Voltaire then strained through the sieve of Italian bel canto. Suffice to say, it's a Hamlet-esque story in which Queen Semiramide has helped a former lover murder her husband (King Nino),though by the opening of the opera (15 years later), she has a romantic interest in her son, Arsace. She doesn't realize he's her son, of course, until later, not long before he kills her in the dark (he's trying to kill the former lover and accomplice) and becomes king himself. Detailing the subplots and minor characters will not make things clearer.
For all its laughable implausibility, however, Semiramide is a splendid piece, albeit heavily dependent on two first-rate female voices for the title role and that of Arsace. Happily, OinC scored high in this regard, with soprano Jane Archibald in the title role and mezzo Lynne McMurtry as her son. Both have a commanding stage presence, rich, strong voices, and the technique and flexibility to handle the awesome complexity of Rossini's music. Importantly, the two voices also melded well together in their ensemble scenes. As a result, they were rightly the twin foci of this performance, galvanizing attention in sumptuous. sound and doing as much as anyone can to make their cardboard characters come alive. (For all the artificiality of the overar ching plot line, some of the individual musical numbers nevertheless pack a powerful emotional punch.)
If the other singers made less impact, the fault is largely Rossini's, since everything in the opera seems secondary to the relationship of the two principals. Tenor Eric Shaw (Prince Idremo) was in confident good form, as were bass-baritone Giles Tomkins (the High Priest) and bass Charles Baxter (Prince Assur, Semiramide's former lover and accomplice). Tenor Joey Niceforo (Mitrane), bass Robert Gleadow (King Nino's ghost) and soprano Deanna Hendriks (Princess Azema) did excellent double duty in the minor roles and as members of the estimable OinC chorus.
Sandra Horst made a welcome return to OinC as music director and pianist for this concert performance, with the chorus conducted and directed by Robert Cooper. With all the time and talent mustered for this rarely mounted Rossini gem, it's a pity there could only be one performance. In the end, with such a wealth of music and singing, who needs plausibility?