Washington Concert Opera’s exquisite ‘Semiramide’

First WCO opera of the season, Rossini’s infrequently performed and challenging Babylonian tragedy, boasts extraordinary soloists, remarkable clarity.

Vivica Genaux (L) and Jessica Pratt (R) starred in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Rossini's "Semiramide." (Credit: Don Lassell for WCO)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 2015 – The Washington Concert Opera launched its 2015-2016 season with a breathtakingly beautiful performance of Rossini’s rarely performed tragic opera “Semiramide” at Lisner Auditorium Sunday evening. Led in this performance by music director Antony Walker, the WCO orchestra, chorus and soloists once again provided ample evidence as to why this ensemble is one of Washington’s true performing arts gems.

Most symphony concertgoers are familiar with Rossini’s overture to this opera, as it’s frequently performed in concert halls around the world as the opening work of a symphony orchestra’s program. Unlike many of Rossini’s overtures, which the harried composer often mixed and matched to various operas depending on how tight his schedule was, the overture to “Semiramide” actually develops the arias and motifs that will later be heard in the opera itself before coming to its typically fulfilling Rossinian finale.

Cast, chorus and orchestra for WCO's "Semiramide," let by Antony Walker, artistic director and conductor. (Credit Don Lassell for WCO)
Cast, chorus and orchestra for WCO’s “Semiramide,” led by Antony Walker (center), artistic director and conductor (Credit Don Lassell for WCO)

The opera itself has a twisted based loosely on the ancient and often mythic history surrounding the Babylonian empire. Similar in a way to the plotline of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” not to mention Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” Rossini’s conflicted hero, Arsace (mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux in a trouser role) finds he’s been lined up to become the next husband of Babylon’s reigning queen, Semiramide (Jessica Pratt). That’s a problem, because Arsace is really in love with Azema (soprano Natalie Conte).

And that, in turn, leads to another problem, as Assur (bass-baritone Wayne Tigges), Semiramide’s thuggish right-hand man, is himself looking forward to marrying Azema. But he’s even more eager to win his appointment as king, an announcement of which Semiramide has promised to make.

But when the queen appoints Arsace as king instead, claiming him as her fiancé as well, a load of personal apple carts gets upset. The situation is made even worse when Arsace discovers he’s actually Ninia, the son of Semiramide and her husband, the former (and now deceased) King Nino. Worse still, that would mean that Azema is actually Arsace’s sister. And to top it off, Arsace learns that it was actually Semiramide and Assur who conspired to murder his father. This is a situation that is not going to end well, and it doesn’t.

Unlike many of Rossini’s rollicking comedies, “Semiramide,” as a serious tragedy, find this early Romantic composer looking back toward baroque opera with regard to approach and style. “Semiramide” is loaded with lengthy coloratura-style arias and duets for all the principles, presenting a real challenge for all but the most expert vocalists in this format.

As always, however, WCO seems to have come up with the perfect soloists to pull this opera off. And as a result, Sunday’s one-time-only performance offered an astonishingly well-done take on this opera and a definitive reading of its score.

All the primary soloists were outstanding during Sunday’s performance. Evan Hughes extraordinarily deep bass-baritone instrument was impressive indeed as he performed the role of Oroe, the Babylonian high priest who also possesses some key royal secrets.

Likewise, tenor Taylor Stayton, whose bright, lyrical but powerful tenor voice provided many a thrill Sunday evening, particularly in his showy Act II solo excursions.

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Arsace in WCO's concert production of Rossini's "Semiramide." (Credit: Don Lassell for WCO)
Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Arsace in WCO’s concert production of Rossini’s “Semiramide” (Credit: Don Lassell for WCO)

Wayne Tigges was a nasty but well calibrated villain, imperious to the last and literally snarling at his rival, Arsace, as he staked his claim to both throne and the queen’s daughter as well.

As Queen Semiramide, soprano Jessica Pratt was bright and adept, portraying vocally both the authority and the vulnerability of a guilty and conflicted ruler and easily managing all the composer’s many vocal challenges.

But for us, at least, the real star of the evening was mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, a soloist we’ve admired several times over the past two decades. Possessed of an astonishing vocal range, including an unbelievably powerful command of her lowest notes, Ms. Genaux’ well-articulated, uniquely rich and honey-like instrument is hugely important in this as well as the many other baroque and bel canto trouser roles she’s performed over her career. Here, she had the right blend of heroism and nervousness as befits the noble Arsace-Ninia, who faces head-on this opera’s multi-layered conflicts and triumphs in the end. Hands down, a truly great performance. Brava!

Finally, a quick but sincere hat tip to Bass Weí Wu for his brief but chilling portrayal of King Nino’s Ghost—vocally near the end of Act I, and in pantomime at a crucial juncture of Act II. Nino’s Ghost adds a riddle and a note of vengeful prophecy to the proceedings that helps considerably in moving the story line toward its violent yet emotionally satisfying conclusion.

A standing ovation to all for a performance well done.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)


Looking ahead: Washington Concert Opera’s regular season consists of but two operas per season, usually offering fine operatic works that, for various reasons, are not often performed fully staged today if at all. WCO’s spring offering will be Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera “La Favorite.” Performance date: Friday, March 4, 2016. Special attraction: This performance of “La Favorite” will feature Virginia native, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, an alumna of the Wolf Trap Opera Company and greatly acclaimed for her thrilling recent New York Metropolitan Opera performances in the gender-bending role of Nicklausse in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” Ms. Lindsey will sing the role of Leonora, the mistress (or “favorite”) of Alphonse XI, the King of Castile in Donizetti’s tragic opera, a favorite in the 19th century before largely falling by the wayside in the 20th century.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17