Semiramide 'La Signora Regale'; Anna Bonitatibus, Collegium 1704, Vaclav Luks; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 05 2016
Star rating: 4.0
Anna Bonitatibus on terrific form in a programme spanning a century of music about Semiramide
The semi-mythical character of Semiramis (Semiramide), Queen of Assyria, seems to have fascinated opera composers for over 100 years. For her recital at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 5 October 2016, Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus gave us a selection of different takes on the character, with the composers ranging from the well-known (Handel, Gluck and Rossini) through the moderately known (Caldara, Vinci, Jommelli and Paisiello) to the unknown (Bertoni, Bianchi, Nasolini, Catel and Garcia). For her journey, Bonitatibus was accompanied by the Czech ensemble, Collegium 1704 conducted by their founder Vaclav Luks.
In fact there were a series of different Semiramides as different librettos concentrated on different aspects of her story, or invented new ones. It wasn't so much the fascination with the historical character as the seductive charm of the mythical Middle East, combined of course with Semiramide's mythical murderous instincts. It could have been a dutiful trawl through some forgotten and rather worthily dull operas, after all not every 18th century opera was really worth reviving. But Bonitatibus brought a vivid sense of theatricality and engagement to each aria, combining a vivid technique with a striking physicality; she certainly is not a singer to just stand and deliver. Though she did use music, she was strikingly engaged with the audience and we had a degree of visual stimulus too. Not just Bonitatibus's highly mobile platform manner, but her four different outfits ensured a striking visual side to the programme.
The programme was played in historical order, so we started with Antonio Caldara (from 1725) and ended with Manuel Garcia (from 1826). Caldara's Semiramide in Ascalona premiered in 1725 and we heard the Introduzione (overture) and Povera navicella. The overture was an attractive Vivaldi-esque piece, followed by a vigorous simile aria with some robust passage-work, to which Bonitatibus added some brilliant ornaments in the Da Capo.
Fuggi dagl'ochi miei comes from Handel's pasticcio Semiramide riconosciuta (from 1733) and is a re-using of an aria by Leonardo Vinci originally written in 1729. Here we had a strikingly dramatic orchestral introduction, followed by an equally dramatic and less showy aria, which allowed Bonitatibus so demonstrate her rich lower register.
Niccolo Jommelli wrote Semiramide riconosciuta in 1741 (using the same Metastasio libretto which Handel had used and which would crop up again in the Gluck and Bertoni operas). Here we had a vivid accompagnato followed by an equally vivid aria which consisted of a fluid sequence of sections and rather reminded me of Jommelli's contemporary Gluck. Having heard Classical Opera's account of Jommelli's Il Vologeso earlier this year, this aria made me interested to hear more.
We had two helpings of Gluck, first a sequence of varied dance movements from his ballet Semiramis of 1765, where we could feel that there was an underlying sense of narrative thanks to the dramatic playing of the ensemble. The opening sinfonia was very recognisable, as Gluck would later re-use it in Iphigenie en Tauride! Then we heard the aria Fuggi dagl'ochi miei from Gluck's version of Metastasio's Semiramide riconosciuta from 1748. Though an earlier work, this still had hints of the later drama which we expect from Gluck.
The first half closed with an aria by Francesco Bertoni, Non so se piu t'accendi comes from his 1767 version of Metastasio's Semiramide riconosciuta. This was a more galant style of music with some fine ornaments, which became quite a showpiece and Bonitatibus included a very striking (over the top?) cadenza. Here as elsewhere, she really threw herself into the music, creating virtuoso, bravura, drama.
The second half opened with the sinfonia from Francesco Bianchi's 1790 opera La vendetta di Nino (a Semiramide opera despite its name). This was an attractively sturm und drang sort of piece, over which the spirit of Mozart seemed to hover. Paisiello's Serbo in seno il cor piagato, from his 1772 opera La Semiramide in villa, was a delight to encounter. Again the spirit of Mozart was invoked in the vocal writing which was touching, yet not uncomplicated.
Serbo Nasolini's Deh sospendi a'pianti miei... Serbo ancora un'alma altera from his 1792 opera La morte di Semiramide started off with a remarkable sequence of accompanied recitative (in dialogue with chorus, represented only by instruments in this performance) which led to a highly serious aria. The whole was full of vivid interest, especially as the vocal writing seemed to provide some remarkable pre-echoes of Rossini [in fact it was by Rossini, see the Update below]. This is not as strange as it might seem, as Nasolini's opera had quite an after life, being performed right up to 1815, a sign of the way opera was changing.
Charles-Simon Catel's opera Semiramis from 1802, was represented by a pair of dances the first of which was intriguingly varied, and the second rather perky with hints towards the later 19th century.
The most famous, and last major opera on the subject of Semiramide is of course Rossini's 1823 version. Here we had the best known aria, Bel raggio lusinghier, in a terrific performance where Bonitatibus combined strong tone with fine control of the fioriture. But this was not the end, we heard an aria from the opera Semiramis by Manuel Garcia, the father of Maria Malibran. This was rather an intense prayer, beautifully done.
The substantial programme was ecstatically received, and Bonitatibus treated us to two further arias. First of all something from Semiramide by the great castrato, Girolamo Crescentini, and then something from Nicola Porpora's Semiramide regina dell'Assiria. Both were extremely impressive in their show-off nature, but the latter was great fun too!
The recital was based on Bonitatibus's 2015 Gramophone Award winning disc, but this was much more than a simple concert of the CD. It was terrifically engaging recital, and Bonitatibus really brought the sometimes unknown music to life. She took quite a vigorous approach to everything, and whilst there was an element uniformity to her approach, the sheer vividness of her performances captured you. She was well supported by Vaclav Luks and Collegium 1704, with an ensemble which went from simple strings and continuo to the full orchestra with horns required by Rossini. Collegium 1704 may not have played with the most brilliant sense of burnished tone but they brought a characterful vividness to the playing.
Update: I heard from Anna Bonitatibus that in fact the scena from Nasolini's La morte di Semiramide was from the 1815 performance in Naples, where the soprano was Isabella Colbran. The scena used music by Nasolini and Marcos Portugal, to which Colbran asked the young Rossini to 'fix' the ending and Rossini took a section from his Cambiale di Matrimonio. You can read more about it at the Consonarte.com website where the music from the recital is available. The website also explains that the version of Bel raggio lusinghier from Rossini's Semiramide was reconstructed from the original manuscript.