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Recording of the Week, Rossini's Semiramide from Mark Elder

On the face of it, Rossini’s epic tale of political machinations, incestuous love and supernatural vengeance in ancient Babylon is an oddly mainstream undertaking for Opera Rara, whose recent projects have included the first-ever recordings of Donizetti’s Les martyrs and Bellini’s youthful Adelson e Salvini: there are a respectable half-dozen recordings of Semiramide in the current catalogue, and the past year has seen headline productions at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. But Elder is on a mission to present the score as it would have been heard in Venice back in 1823, playing up the music’s debt to the great baroque masters rather than its anticipations of Verdi and recreating the slightly dry, intimate acoustic of La Fenice where the opera premiered by using authentic instruments and lighter voices than one often hears in modern productions.

Mark ElderI attended one of the recording-sessions during the long hot summer of 2016 (just days before the team presented a slightly cut concert-version at the Proms), and as I watched Elder working on the Act One finale, meticulously clarifying textures, coaxing out little details and pointing rhythms with quasi-baroque crispness, I felt the same frisson of excitement that I’d experienced on first hearing one of my favourite operatic recordings of recent years: Giovanni Antonini’s radical take on Bellini’s Norma, released on Decca in 2013 with Cecilia Bartoli in the title-role. (I subsequently learned that Norma had been on Elder’s radar when he first hit on the idea of taking a bel canto staple and stripping away the accumulated performance-traditions of the twentieth century, but when Antonini got there first he turned his attention to Semiramide!). From the outset, the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (particularly the brass) fizz and glow, and four hours zip along in the blink of an eye thanks to Elder’s lightly-sprung tempi and unflagging rhythmic momentum.

The casting is perhaps less controversial (and in some respects less preoccupied with authenticity) than Antonini’s Norma, particularly when it comes to the heroine: like Norma, the fearsome title-role was originally written for a mezzo with a high extension (Rossini’s wife and muse Isabella Colbran, by then in the autumn of a glittering career) and only later became associated with dramatic coloratura sopranos.

Albina ShagimuratovaWhereas that recent Royal Opera House production harked back to the role’s origins by casting Joyce DiDonato as the murderous queen, Elder opts for a singer who has much in common with the one of the greatest Semiramides of the twentieth century: his leading lady is Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova, whose basic sound put me very much in mind of Joan Sutherland on Bonynge’s fabled Decca recording from the 1960s. The voice is a shade lighter and more sensual than the great Australian’s (and at risk of courting controversy, she strikes me as a keener vocal actress), but she possesses the same crystalline quality that made Sutherland such a marvel and yields nothing in terms of agility and facility in the upper reaches. As her estranged son Arsace, Italian mezzo Daniela Barcellona (less steely than Marilyn Horne for Bonynge, but still convincingly masculine) seems fully at ease with the role’s very low tessitura, and has outstanding chemistry with Shagimuratova in their two great duets, ‘Serbami ognor’ and ‘Giorno d’orrore’ – real highlights of the score and of this recording in particular.

The men also cover themselves in glory, despite the fact that two of them were very late replacements: the young Italian bass Mirco Palazzi (who substituted for lldebrando d’Arcangelo at the eleventh hour) is virile and vehement as the villainous Assur, Semiramide’s former lover and co-conspirator, whilst Barry Banks despatches Idreno’s stratospheric fireworks with ease and elegance. (He sounds, understandably, in fresher voice here than in the Proms performance, and the recording restores an aria which was cut that night in deference to the BBC’s schedule!).

As Elder wryly observed in a recent interview, four hours of Rossini has the potential to be one of the best or the worst musical experiences in the world, and in this case it’s emphatically the former: this fresh, taut recording is an absolute triumph.

Albina Shagimuratova (Semiramide), Daniela Barcellona (Arsace), Mirco Palazzi (Assur), Barry Banks (Idreno), Gianluca Buratto (Oroe), Susana Gaspar (Azema), David Butt Philip (Mitrane), James Platt (L’ombra di Nino)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Opera Rara Chorus, Sir Mark Elder

Available Formats: 4 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC