Semiramide is one of several operatic offerings at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and is by far the longest in duration. This version in fact lasts for four and a half hours and when it was originally staged, even Stendhal, avid opera fan that he was, complained that it was too long. Add to this the fact that it is melodrama tragico by Rossini, the man who is most celebrated for his light bel canto comedies, and all the signs seem to be pointing to quite a challenging experience.
The piece is a true epic. Based on a story by Voltaire, it traces the fate of the Babylonian queen, Semiramide. At its opening, she is about to choose a new ruler of Babylon: her power is waning since the death of her husband, whom – unbeknown to everyone – she has murdered. She has her eye on a young army commander, Arsace, whom she has fallen in love with and hopes to make both her King and new husband. But Arsace is in fact her own son, brought up in ignorance of his true identity, hidden away by her former husband for protection. The plot contains echoes of Hamlet and Oedipus, but focuses on a female character – Semiramide – as the tragic muse, which gives the story an interesting twist.
It also holds up as an opera. It is the music which defines this production, delicately produced by the Vlaamse Opera. The conductor Alberto Zedda brings makes his orchestra light up, and bar a few acoustic problems (the woodwind section were glaringly loud) creates a gorgeous sound. The singers perform with aplomb, with Myrtò Papatanasiu in the title role making the coloratura sound easy. Special note must also go to Julianne Gearhart and Robert McPherson, whose duet was a joy to hear and added some much needed laughs to the production. The chorus were less tight, and at the opening seemed out of time with the conductor, but they were soon brought under control.
It is the design and staging which lets this production down. Nigel Lowery, who directs and designs, has created provocative but compelling work in the past: sadly, this production does not work on the same level. The set design is muddled and at times ridiculous. The basic idea is interesting. Large screens show the burnt out palatial mansion of Saddam Hussein, which is deconstructed and reconstructed at various points during the opera. It’s possible to see the point behind setting ancient Babylon’s quest for a new ruler in a modern(ish)-day Iraq. But other design choices are more difficult to read. A large glittering curtain falls across the stage at various points for no apparent reason; Semiramide is sometimes followed by an actress dressed as her double who wanders around behind her like a lost sheep; the cardboard boxes which inhabit the stage are moved around by the chorus in a way that is often banal and, worse, even sometimes silly. Complexity of design is one thing, but these choices made the piece feel incomprehensible in ways it needn’t have been. All of which ends up working against the piece’s musical strengths.