Dear Readers:

Welcome to Awful Avalanche, here is my blog concept and what I do:

I scan online newspapers from Russian-language press, in search of interesting stories and political topics.  These are stories which Russians themselves are reading and commenting upon.

I translate or at least summarize into English the content therein.

My target audience:  Russophiles, or anybody else who is interested.

I pick stories and analysis which interest me, generally from the following categories (this might evolve):

  • Breaking News,
  • Celebrity Gossip
  • True Crime,
  • Cat Fighting,
  • Human Interest Stories,
  • maybe even some Cute Animal Stories too!

Sincerely yours,


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Semiramide Reigns At the Met – Part VI

Dear Readers:

Continuing to probe into the Semiramide backstory, as penned by the French playwright Voltaire.  And the backbone, so to speak, of this backstory, consists of those wonderful men called the Magi.  Who constituted a caste within the ruling class of Queen Semiramide’s Assyria.  Not just Assyria, but the ancient world, in general.  This cadre of priests, magicians and political intriguers constituted almost an International Intelligence Agency of the time.  It was their job to travel everywhere, either on horseback or camel, learn everything that was going on, and plot to influence events to a favorable outcome.  Their foreign agents included so-called Oracles, men and women who issued cryptic prophecies with the aid of magic and special effects.  The Magi communication system included letters (probably written in secret code) and messengers.  In parts of the ancient world, including Greece and Rome, carrier pigeons were employed to communicate between the various posts and stations.  A pigeon could easily deliver an encoded message between Greece and Anatolia within just a couple of hours.

Remains of the Oracle of Delphi

In Voltaire’s play a key figure is the High Priest Oroes, the leader of the Magi caste of Babylon, who, as I mentioned before, was sung by American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, in the production which I saw.

As the play opens, we meet the Scythian Cavalry Officer Arsaces, a youth of around 17 or 18, who has already distinguished himself in battle and brought himself to the attention of his Empress, Queen Semiramide.  The latter has summoned the lad to Babylon, along with a multitude of other guests, for a special announcement.  Little does Arsaces know that Semiramide is to announce her marriage — to him!  Littler does he know (and she doesn’t know this either) that he is actually her long-lost son, Prince Ninias.

High Priest Speedo of the Order Of Magi

Semiramide (nickname “Shammy”) wants to marry Arsaces for 2 reason:  (1)  The Assyrian people demand a male King, and she has procrastinated way too long in her so-called Regency; and (2) in her few brief encounters with Arsaces, she has really fallen for him.   It might just be his cute little face, or his piping voice…  Also, the marriage announcement is to be a big surprise, something that will draw forth many “ooohs” and “aahhhs” from the mob, ’cause, see, they are expecting that she had picked Assur to be her mate and King.  But Shammy would rather kill herself than marry that brute.  Even though they used to be an item, back in the day…

The important question, though, is “What do the Magi think of all these antics?”  Well, the Magi have already met behind the scenes and decided that (1) They must keep that mullet-headed beast Assur from ascending the throne; (2) But nor can they permit Shammy to marry her own son.  For 2 reasons:  (1) Incest is immoral; and (2) Incest is illegal.  You might ask, How do the Magi know it’s incest, when everyone else, including the two principals, are in the dark?  The answer is simple:  They know because they know everything!  Which brings us to Phradates and The Letter.

Phradates And The Letter

As Arsaces explains to his confidante Mitranes, who greets him upon his arrival in Babylon [in the opera no there is no such character; if there were, he probably would have been a tenor], his so-called “father” Phradates has just died, leaving him bereft of wise counsel.  Mitranes retorts with some important exposition:

I weep with thee the loss of him we loved,
The good old man; Phradates was my friend;
Ninus esteemed and gave to him the care
Of Ninias, his dear son, our country’s hope:
But O! one fatal day destroyed them both,
Father and son: to voluntary exile
Devoted, long he lived: his banishment
Was fortunate to thee, and made thee great:
Close by his side, in honor’s glorious field,
Arsaces fought, and conquered for his country:
Now, ranked with princes, thy exalted virtue
Claims its reward by merit all thy own.

In other words, Phradates used to be a favorite at the court and was trusted by King Ninus.  But then, as we know, both Ninus and the baby Ninias were poisoned by Assur.  This act of political assassination brought Semiramide onto the throne.  Phradates knew he was next in line to be liquidated by this Mesopotamian version of Lady McScottish-Person, hence he prudently went into “voluntary exile” to Scythia.  As we learn subsequently, Phradates was able, somehow (major plot-hole) to sneak the dying baby out with him and take him along to Scythia, while King Ninus was buried alone with much pomp and circumstance into his ziggurat tomb.

The Ancient Gates of Nineveh

Meanwhile, out of harm’s way, and using his knowledge of herbs, Phradates was able to cure the dying baby, and then raised him as his son, after his own son, Arsaces, conveniently of the same age, died.  Then the switcheroo was completed:  Ninias became Arsaces, and nobody in Babylon was any the wiser.

Except for the Magi, of course.  Homicide detectives, in addition to all their other duties.  We have already established that the ancient Assyrians had mastered crow-quill technology and also knew how to use ink and papyrus to jot down their deathbed confessions.  See, just before he succumbed to the poison, King Ninus was in the process of writing an accusatory letter.  Which began thusly:

“Ninus to Phradates:
I die by poison, guard my Ninias well,
Defend him from his foes: my guilty wife— ack ack ack

Unfortunately, Ninus keeled over before he could finish even the second sentence, but still, this was more than enough culpatory evidence to put Wife Shammy away.  Phradates kept the letter, along with other material evidence when he fled to Scythia.  He put all this solid forensic evidence into a coffer and hid it well.  On his deathbed, he called his “son” Arsaces to him, handed over the coffer, and ordered the lad to deliver it to High Priest Speedo in Babylon.  One would have thought that he could give the kid a heads-up:  “By the way, you’re actually Ninias.”  But he didn’t, he just sends him off with a muddled brain. and into the thick of Semiramide’s Babylonian court.  Which was like a hornet’s nest wrapped inside a scorpion’s nest!

Shammy in trouble with her court

So, our hero’s first act upon arriving in Babylon, is to deliver the box of goodies to High Priest Oroes and his band of Merry Magi at the Temple of Ba’al.  After a few token greetings and condolences are exchanged, Oroes gets right to the point:  “Where are the gifts he [Phradates] sent me?”

And with that, being as much a Materialist as the Great Voltaire himself, I make so bold as to infer that Oroes already knows what is in that damned coffer.  It would beggar belief to think he had not been in communication with Phradates and already knew the whole backstory, the murder, the switcheroo, etc.  Of course he knows it all.  He just needed the coffer as physical proof, in order to put his plan into action.  His plan being to get rid of both Semiramide and Assur at the same time; and to put Ninias on the throne.  Oroes is very careful to hide the coffer, what he calls the “sacred relics”, beneath the altar, in a place where Assur can never find it.

The Ghost

As part of his cunning plan, Oroes and the other Magi have been organizing public illusions, or magic tricks, involving the so-called Ghost of Ninus stalking the land and bellowing for revenge.  Oroes to Arsaces:

The dread secret
Hath long been hid in darkness from the eyes
Edition: current; Page: Of men within the sepulchre; the shade
Of Ninus, and offended heaven, long time
Have raised their voice in vain, and called for vengeance.

Arsaces retorts helpfully:  “Yeah, I heard some groans when I first arrived in town.”

In the backstory, Semiramide herself has heard, and even seen, the ghost.  Assur is no dummy:  He tells the Queen that she shouldn’t believe the “lying Oracles” or “Magi tricks”, but Shammy, more superstitious, feels the need to send out to the Oracle of Libya for advice.  The Libyan Oracle, who is in cahoots with the Babylonian Magi, emits its usual cryptic message:

All shall again be well at Babylon,
When Hymen’s torch a second time shall blaze
Propitious; then shalt thou, O cruel wife,
And wretched mother, then shall thou appease
The shade of Ninus. 

Shammy misunderstands the Oracle, and thinks she can appease her ex-hubby’s ghost by marrying a second time — to Arsaces.  What the Oracle actually means is that Arsaces/Ninias is supposed to marry Princess Azema.  But being an Oracle, it can’t just spit out its message like a normal, logical person.

Ba’al: “Will somebody tell that damned ghost to shut up? I’m trying to sleep!”

In any case, it will take more than a nightly groaning-man or a fake ghost to uncover the conscience of the Queen.  When they see that Shammy is not moving along the right track, the Magi realize that they must resort to their knowledge of trap-door and underground-tunnel technology.  And here one needs to keep in mind that the Temple of Ba’al is connected, by secret underground tunnel, to the Tomb of Ninus.  How very convenient!

So, what is the Magi’s ultimate goal?  No less than the assassination of the Queen.  Why not assassinate Assur as well?  No, the Magi have decided to spare him, for whatever reason.  He’ll just serve a term in the dungeon.  This is the reason why the Ghost demands only one victim to complete his vengeance.  The fact that this one turns out to be Queen Shammy, and that she is to die at the hands of her own son, is a later plot-twist, which I have just heartlessly given away.

Next:  The Final Denouement…

[to be continued]

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Semiramide Reigns At the Met – Part V

Dear Readers:

Beware the claws of Ishtar!

Still continuing to break down the Semiramide backstory.  Which is not only a murder mystery, but also a political thriller, involving two major castes struggling for power in ancient Babylon of, roughly, 850 B.C.  According to wiki, the Assyrian Empire existed from around 2500 B.C. until its collapse around 600 B.C.  Geographically, it was centered on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is modern-day Iraq, parts of Syria, Turkey and even fringes of Persia.  “At its peak, the Assyrian empire stretched from Cyprus and the East Mediterranean to Iran, and from what is now Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, to the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and eastern Libya.”  Voltaire showcased this geographical and ethnic diversity by having his Scythian hero, Arsaces, hail from the Caucasus region.  Well, as we have subsequently learned, Arsaces is actually the Assyrian Prince Ninias in disguise, but even he doesn’t remember that, as he was just a toddler when he was whisked away and adopted by Phradates.  Uncle Phradates raised him as a Scythian cavalry officer, so presumably he is fluent in both Scythian and Semitic.  And people say his Persian was passable, as well.

Wiki again:  The Semitic-speaking Assyria “was at the height of technological, scientific and cultural achievements for its time.”  These technological achievements are showcased in Rossini’s opera when he shows Queen Semiramide sitting at her desk and using her cellphone to text Assur — JUST KIDDING!  She writes a letter to him on papyrus, with ink-pot and a crow’s quill for a pen.

However, I am not completely kidding when I stress the technological achievements of the Assyrians:  They were certainly capable of building trap doors and underground tunnels, and this will come into play later, when I make some bold claims about the so-called “Ghost of Ninus”.

Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov portrays Assur.

But returning to our Game of Thrones and the two warring castes.  One of the castes being the Warrior Nobility, whose flag-bearer is Assur, of the House of Belus.  When Assur and Queen Shammuramat poisoned her husband, King Ninus, 15 years ago, ASS-ur just ASS-umed that Shammy would subsquently marry HIM and hand over the throne.  Ancient Assyrians were still at the stage where they would accept a Moor to rule over them, but not a white woman.  Unfortunately for Assur, Shammy kept delaying her abdication — not unlike the Queen of England!   Using tactics of Creative Procrastination, she clung to power and ruled alone for 15 years, forcing a disappointed Assur to plot a different way to the throne:  Namely, by marrying his own kinswoman Princess Azema, who is young enough to be his daughter — but don’t panic, she is not ACTUALLY his daughter — there is only ONE incest in this play, namely Shammy and her son — and thus forcing Shammy to abdicate.

This being a Marxist analysis, based on sound principles of dialectical-materialism, I am going to stipulate that Assur and his allies in the noble houses and army represent the land-owning ruling class.  Or the slave-owning ruling class.  Whatever it was that they had back in those days:  Slaves, lands, ziggurats, gold, frankincense, whatever.

Beware Magi, ESPECIALLY when they be bearing gifts!

The other wing of the ruling class is represented by the Priestly or Magi caste.  Christians know of the Magi, because these are the same guys who brought Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the Baby Jesus.  These Assyrian Magi abhor Assur and the House of Belus.  They will do whatever it takes to thwart his evil scheme and put the House of Ninus back on the throne.  Please recall that the word Magi is the root of our current word “magician”, and not without cause.  These ancient Magi knew tricks that Houdini would envy.  They were especially good at performing illusions and special effects at big public spectacles…  All the better to wow the hoi polloi and achieve their political-religious aims.

In Voltaire’s story, the Magi are the good guys.  Under the benign leadership of High Priest Speedo, they know everything that is going on, they understand the backstory, they know about the murder and whodunnit, they give good advice to the Queen, and they conspire to resolve the political crisis.  Voltaire’s attitude is understandable, in terms of his own political philosophy:  This French kreakle believed that human progress was ensured by the rule of so-called “Enlightened Despots”, provided those despots surround themselves with, and take the advice of, philosophers such as himself!  Hence, he identified with the Magi.  But my own advice to Enlightened Despots is this:  “Beware the Magi!”  They may be smart, but they always have their own agenda, they will throw you under the bus in a second, just like they threw Shammy, if they think that’s what they have to do.  Recall that even those benevolent “Wise Men” who brought birthday gifts to Baby Jesus, had a trick up their tunics:  The Gold and Frankincense were not-bad presents for a young baby, but they also brought Myrrh, as a kind of joke gift.  Like, hinting to Jesus:  “You’re gonna die and be put in a tomb, little dude…”

Next:  We get down to business with the purloined letter from Phradates, the pronouncement of the Libyan oracle, and the first appearance of the so-called Ghost!

[to be continued]

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Semiramide Reigns At the Met – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Continuing in Semiramide mode by attempting to put together the backstory.  I skimmed Voltaire’s play, and it seems like Gaetano Rossi’s libretto stuck very closely to Voltaire (with the inevitable simplifications required to turn a play into an opera); hence, all of the plot holes are really on Voltaire.  The major plot hole being the child murder.

MURDER, He Wrote

So, to recap, we know that 15 years before the curtain opens, Queen Semiramide and Assur, her [former] lover(?) ally, a warrior nobleman from the House of Belus, plotted to murder Semi’s husband King Ninus.  Both had means, opportunity, and motive: Semiramide’s motive was to preserve her status as Queen, since a little birdie had whispered to her that Ninus was about to remove her in favor of a new bride.  (Well, their marriage had never been a happy one.)  Assur’s motive is that he hopes to gain the throne.  With Ninus out of the way, he figures he is next in line.  It never occurred to him that Semiramide, a mere female, would manage to hang on to the throne and rule alone for 15 whole years, while Assur is forced to just wait impotently.  Later, as we learn more about the teeming politics of this court, Semiramide is just hanging on by a thread, balancing between various castes of nobles and Magi, not to mention the army.  This explains why the ruling elites allow a woman to remain in power so long:  Because she is the balance between the various centrifugal forces.

Babylonian elite at a time of acute political crisis

We learn that, while administering poison to King Ninus, Assur took it upon himself (Semiramide did not authorize this) to kill the kid as well, namely their infant son Ninias, who was a toddler of around 2 or 3 at the time.  Removing another piece from the chess board.

“Spread your wings and fly, O Queen!”

We learn that Ninias was intended, when he grew up, to marry Princess Azema, also of the noble family of Belus.  Although Azema (now around 16 or 17 years old) doesn’t have much to do in the opera, she is actually a big deal in the play.  The men who court her, including Assur, who is old enough to be her father, hope to benefit from her cachet, since she carries super-noble blood in her veins.  In the opera, Rossi introduced an extraneous character who is not in the play, namely the coloratura tenor, Idreno.  His sole purpose, apart from belting out High C’s, being also to court Azema and make the poor girl even more confused than she already is, by all this unwanted attention.

Returning to the child murder:  The major plot-hole is that Semi supposedly doesn’t know, or suspect, that Assur killed her child as well as her husband.  As a loving mother, if she knew that, she would never tolerate Assur at her side for 15 years.  Moreoever, what proof did she ever receive that her baby is dead?  She was just told so (“Hey, your kid is dead, my condolences”), and just took it on faith, without demanding to see the body?


Once I was a mother,
But scarce had studied to deserve the name
By my fond cares, when heaven in anger snatched
My child away, and left me here alone
A prey to anguish. I had nothing near me
That I could love; and, midst my grandeur, felt
An aching void within my soul.

Semi goes on to tell her confidante, Otanes (who is not in the opera) that this void has only recently been filled when she fell in love with the young Scythian Prince Arsaces.  There is just something about this lad who reminds her of both her husband and her son, come to mention it, he is young enough to be her .. er… son.  But never mind about that:  For now, the key take-away is that Semi thinks Heaven snatched her baby away, lo those 15 years ago.  As opposed to good old Uncle Assur!  How gullible can this Incarnation of Ishtar be?

Now, it is true enough that Assur tried to kill Ninias.  Tried very hard.  As was later exposited by High Priest Oroes, who is the one guy in the entire play/opera who knows everything that is going on.  And well he should, because he is an omniscient Magi.  Here is how he explains to “Arsaces” that the latter is actually “Ninias”, and how he escaped Assur’s poison, thanks to a man named Phradates.


Ninus, the morn before he died, foresaw
His end approaching; knew the deadly draught
Which he had drunk was ministered to thee
By the same hand, and, dying as thou wert,
Withdrew thee from this wicked court: for Assur
Had poisoned thee that he might wed thy mother,
Thought to exterminate the royal race,
And open thus his passage to the throne:
But whilst the kingdom mourned thy loss, Phradates,
Our faithful friend, secreted and preserved thee;
With skilful hand the precious herbs prepared,
O’er Persia spread by her benignant God,
Whose wondrous power drew forth the latent venom
From thy parched limbs: his own son dying, you
Supplied his place, and still wert called Arsaces.

This is very good exposition:  We learn that King Ninus’ faithful counselor Phradates (a Persian Magi, apparently) was able to whisk the baby away and cure him of the poison.  Phradates’ own little son, Arsaces, was conveniently dying at the time, which allowed the Magi to perform the switcheroo — a live baby for a dead one — and that is how Semiramide’s allegedly-dead son Ninias became the Scythian outsider Arsaces.  Pretty clever, no?  But it still doesn’t answer the question, why Semi wouldn’t notice that her son’s body was missing.  Unless!  Phradates substituted his own baby’s body into the coffin?  But no, that doesn’t work…  Surely these babes were at least 2 years old, if not 3 (I am assuming that Arsaces/Ninias is at least 17 or 18 years old at this point, with such a military record under his belt); and surely Semi would have noticed it wasn’t her kid’s corpse in the coffin, unless she is very near-sighted (?)

Bass-Baritone Ryan Speedo Green

I know, I know, I probably read too many detective novels, this is why I want all these little details to be explained fully and logically.  But moving on from this mystery, it is time to talk about the political intrigues.  In this particular Game of Thrones, there are clearly two major factions:  the Warrior/Noble caste, who support Assur; and the Magi, who support Ninias.  Caught in between these two factions is Queen Semiramide herself.  Who wears the Wings of Ishtar, but also has a big target painted on her back!

In the Met production, the role of High Priest Oroes is sung by an African-American bass-baritone with the delightful name of Ryan Speedo Green.  In a backstage interview Speedo spoke about his inspirational biography (long story short:  Opera plus his god-given talent saved him from the ghetto and a life of crime), and his approach to Bel canto.  His character sits at the crux of this opera, the leader of the Magi faction, the guy who knows everything that is going on; the Magician who can control events; and the public leader who figures the way out of this impasse.  His job is nothing less than to resolve the political crisis and save the people of Babylon.

Which leads us to that whole “Ghost of Ninus” thing, and I have a few radical theories of my own, to offer in this regard.  Hint:  Ghosts do not actually exist.

[to be continued]

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Semiramide Reigns At the Met – Part III

Dear Readers:

Continuing my review of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Rossini’s great opera Semiramide, which I saw this past weekend on the Live in HD.  As my loyal readers and fellow opera buffs know, I like to break down the stories and back-stories and even the back-back-stories.  I am a materialist and rationalist, so I like the stories to be logical, internally consistent, and, heck, just make sense.  Unfortunately, Gaetano Rossi’s libretto, which he wrote for Rossini, has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese.  But don’t blame, poor Gaetano.  It turns out that the source material itself, written by the great Voltaire, is also full of plot holes.  All the more pity, since this is basically a murder mystery!

Voltaire and Cathy were pen pals.

I mentioned before that Voltaire was a big fan of so-called “Enlightened Despots” such as the Russian monarch Catherine the Great (reigned 1762-1796).  Voltaire published his play Sémiramis (1749) more than a decade before Catherine ascended the throne of the Romanovs.  Thus, he clearly had an image of what he thought an Enlightened Queen should look like.  So that when Catherine took over the Russian government, Voltaire may have seen her as the embodiment of his political and sexual fantasy.  Back in 2006 the Russian government was able to recover, for the state archives, letters written by Voltaire to Catherine, which had been hidden away in a private archive these past few centuries.

Voltaire’s letters to Cathy were penned during the years 1768-1777.  The French writer and philosopher was apparently a bit of a kreakle in his own land:  He was a critic of his own national monarchy but sucked up like crazy to the Russian Empress, not criticizing her brutal treatment of the Russian serfs (who comprised, oh, something like 90% of the population!), and even supporting her military campaigns against the Turks.  Not only that, but Voltaire had the hots for this “Semiramis of the North”, as he described her; allegedly he had a portrait of Cathy in his bedroom, right in front of his bed.  He may have been sexually attracted to her pale Germanic skin and heaving bosom…

Paul I as a young nipper

Cathy’s ruthlessness — the fact that she overthrew her own husband (Peter III) via military coup and took the throne from him — would not have bothered Voltaire in the slightest, since these events mirrored the plot points in his own play:  Semiramide plots with Assur and the army to off her own husband, King Ninus.  And Semiramide’s excuse is the same as Cathy’s:  Her husband was out to get her, she was just defending herself.  However, if life had mirrored art perfectly, then Cathy’s son Paul I, in the role of Prince Ninia, would have reigned gloriously after his mom’s death.  Well, he did reign, but only for a few years, and not exactly gloriously.

In his play, Voltaire excuses the Queen for her murderous ways, on the grounds that her reign was good for the people of Babylon.  She built the hanging gardens, encouraged the arts and sciences, listened to the wise counsel of the Magis, etc.  This is a point of view, and perhaps even a correct point of view:  The good of the many outweighs the costs of the few, the end justifies the means, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, etc.

For those interested in reading Voltaire’s play but can’t read French, I found this English translation of a bunch of his plays, including Sémiramis.  It’s mostly gibberish, of course.  I was hoping that the original source material might fill in some of the plot holes so that I could lay out a logical back-story.  It did fill in a couple of holes, but not the main one.  Namely, if Assur was alleged to have murdered Semiramide’s child, Prince Ninia, then what happened to the body?  Somebody just informs the Queen that her baby is dead, and she just accepts that without demanding to see the body?  That would be unlike any mother that I have ever heard of.  Oh well, with the assistance of Voltaire, Allons-y and on to the back-story, such as it is….

The Back Story

So, we are in ancient Babylon, also known as the Assyrian Empire.  Urban centers include Babylon and Nineveh.  Tourists are encouraged to see the Hanging Gardens, the Temple of Ba’al and the Tomb of King Ninus.  Whose ghost is alleged to walk the grounds at night, just like Hamlet’s dad.

Assyrian men were hung like bulls.

According to Assyrian mythology, Queen Shammuramat reigned around 810 B.C. as the Empress Regent.  Her name meant “dove” in her native Assyrian language, a member of the Semitic language family, probably related to Akkadian.  Other scholars say that the Semitic root šammu (pronounced shamu) means “red”, and not killer-whale, despite what one may think.  The real Shammy, as her friends called her, just reigned for a couple of years as Regent, until her boy came of age, otherwise the Assyrians would have never accepted a woman on the throne.  The Assyrians were so macho that they made the Spartans look like pussies.  Or so I am told.

But in Voltaire’s story, as followed closely by Rossi/Rossini, Shammy has been on the throne for 15 years!  And her son supposedly died along with hubby, both killed off by Assur.  The baby would have been around 2 or 3 at the time.  See, Shammy was worried that hubby Ninus (from whose name came the ancient city of Nineveh?) was about to kick her out of their bedroom.  Maybe he was seeing somebody else.  So she conspires with Assur to kill hub.  Assur poisons the King.  Voltaire denotes Assur as a “Prince of the Family of Belus” — Belus deriving from the God Ba’al, of course.  This is a very noble family in the kingdom.  The Belus family is so noble that their members are vitually untouchable, even when accused of regicide!

[to be continued]

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Semiramide Reigns At the Met – Part II

Dear Readers:

Yesterday we touched on the theme of Bel canto opera and why it is so great.  Bel canto is one of the crowning jewels of the European musical legacy, Europe’s gift to the world, which includes the invention of the mathematical musical scale and classical opera.  In terms of Italian opera, the three greatest Bel canto composers are considered to be Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.  Such composers place vocal demands on their lead singers, which very few can meet.  Mexican superstar coloratura tenor Javier Camarena, who portrays the Indian Prince Idreno in this production, was interviewed backstage (by host Christopher Maltman) and asked how he had developed his phenomenal vocal gift.  Camarena gave sound words of advice:  “Patience… patience… patience….”

Camarena: Extraordinary breath control…

Camarena’s repertoire includes not only Rossini-tragic (Idreno), but also Rossini-comic (he has sung Count Almaviva numerous times in The Barber of Seville).  These Bel canto roles require extraordinary breath control (to spit out those coloratura riffs with machine-gun like speed and precision), not to mention perfect pitch.  Camarena described how he reached his High C notes:  In his mind he would imagine a perfect triangle, with the C at the apex.  Much, much practice it takes.  Many years of practice, and much patience.

The Rivers of Babylon

As the opera opens for Act I, Prince Idreno has arrived in Babylon at the summons of Queen Semiramide.  Along with a host of other foreign dignitaries, many of them distant vassals of the Queen’s vast Empire.  Which apparently includes India, Persia, and parts of modern-day Chechnya!  Because, on the guest list is young Scythian Prince and loyal vassal Arsace, but he is running a bit late and has not arrived yet.  Which gives Idreno an opportunity to come on to the beautiful Azema, a Princess from the extended royal family of Babylonia.  As an infant, Azema was pledged in marriage to Prince Ninia, the toddler son of King Ninus and his wife Queen Semiramide.  But then the child Ninia died in mysterious circumstances, leaving Azema free to love another.

Azema is a soprano, but she has so few lines that she wasn’t even credited in Saturday’s program notes, but I happen to know that it was Sarah Shafer who sang this part.  Rossini obviously wrote the role for a young beginner just learning the trade.  Azema does more acting than singing, but Shafer did good job, in my opinion.  Azema’s main job is to be coveted by THREE of the leads:  Idreno wants to marry her.  So does Arsace.  And so does the villainous Assur, sung by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov.

Assur and Semi used to be an item

From what I am told, the name “Ass-ur” is ancient Mesopotamian for “Ass-Hole”, which is what this nobleman warrior actually is.  He is a scheming murderer, who thinks to promote himself to King of Babylon and marry a young girl half his age.  What blasted hubris!

And here I have to jump ahead to the opening scene of Act II, where we see Assur in Semiramide’s boudoir, with his tunic askew.  Showing off his buff torso and implying that he and the Queen have been an item, at least in the past, although this particular encounter is full of venom and mutual reproach; and she brushes off his hand when he tries to touch her.  I’ll give the backstory later, the murder and the soap-opera switcheroo and all a’ that, but first I just wanted to comment on Ildar’s chestal features:  Abdrazakov is a big strapping boy with nicely rounded pecs, and he is not overly hairy — his pelt being of a light-brown hue, thankfully not black and gorilla-like.

Be that as it may, in real life, Ildar, like most opera superstars, appears to be a very good-natured and upbeat type of fellow.  Which is why he has to put on his “villain” face, along with the greasy mullet wig, and grimace a lot, in order to convince us onstage that he is evil.

In an interview backstage between Acts I and II, Maltman cosetted Assur and Arsace together and challenged the latter jokingly:  “What made you think you could win the girl from a guy like this?” (pointing to the hairy-chested Abdrazakov).  At which, Ildar jokingly draws his fake sword to fake-threaten his much smaller rival, while a flustered Elizabeth DeShong (the mezzo-soprano who sings Arsace in this trousers — I mean tunic — role) is left mute and stuttering, not even knowing how to answer such an impertient question.

Elizabeth DeShong as Scythian Prince Arsace

The fact is, that Princess Azema loves her — I mean him — very deeply.  In backstory exposition sung by Arsace, we learn how these two young people met:  Princess Azema happened to be travelling in Scythia — we are not told why — and was kidnapped by some rude Chechen — I mean Scythian — tribesmen.  Their intentions towards her were quite clear, but fortunately Arsace came galloping to the rescue.  The valiant soldier slew the tribesmen, rescued the girl, slung her over his horse, and they rode off together into the sunset, chest to breast, feeling each others heartbeats, and fell in love along the way.  This is known as “Horse-Romance” and I am told it is quite exhilarating.  Presumably Arsace returned Azema to her family with her hymen intact, and the two lovers plighted their troth.  At this moment in time they were both around, say, 16 years old.  Since then a couple of years have passed, and now Arsace is on his way to Babylon to claim his bride.  He plans to get down on his knees to Queen Semiramide and beg for Azema’s hand in marriage.  But little does he know what the Queen plans for him.

Which leads us to the backstory of the backstory.  Which, unfortunately, cannot be told without giving away all the plot twists…  Not to mention learning something about Voltaire along the way…  See, it always comes back to Voltaire, sooner or later….

[to be continued]



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Semiramide Reigns At the Met – Part I

Dear Readers:

This past weekend I saw (via the Live in HD series at IMAX cinemas) a marvelous production of Gioachino Rossini’s stupendous tragic opera Semiramide. And I even learned how to pronounce this Babylonian Queen’s name in English — with 5 syllables, stress on the third syllable:  Semi-RAM-a-day! The libretto by Gaetano Rossi is based on Voltaire’s tragic play Sémiramis, about the legendary (perhaps half-fictional) Queen of ancient Babylon.  One recalls that when Voltaire was busy sucking up to Russian Empress Catherine the Great, he referred to this “Enlightened Despot” as the “Semiramis of the North”.  Well, if Catherine had a chance to see Rossini’s opera, she might not be so flattered by that.

Ancient Assyrians went with basic geometrical designs

This is the first time in my life I have gotten to see a full production of this particular opera, and I loved everything about it — what a treat! —  The cast, the singing (of course), the staging, the scenery, the trap-doors, and the costumes!  Baal Be Praised, the costumes alone were worth the price of admission.  For some reason (just being flip), the costume designers went with the standard “Ancient Assyrian” theme of geometrical designs in their tunics and robes.  For the chorus and supernumeraries, everybody was topped with what looked to be pretty expensive headgear:  Helmets for the men (the soldiers), and for the ladies (portraying the Queen’s couriers) that type of tiara/crown, I don’t really know what to call it, the picture below shows it on a relief, it looks like a cluster of little skyscrapers perched on top of one’s head.  Everybody wore expensive-looking robes and/or tunics.  Mostly long tunics, but a couple of the male supernumeraries were dressed in those short “Spartacus”-like tunics, giving them the chance to show off their skinny legs and bony knees.  “Joey, do you like to watch movies about gladiators?”  “I sure do, Captain Oveur!”  “Good, then you’ll love Semiramide!  O wait, it’s not about gladiators, it’s about boring family issues and the successor to the throne….”

As I mentioned above, this was my first complete Semiramide experience.  Prior to that, I had only seen excerpts, individual arias and duets, etc.  Of course, I was very familiar with the Overture, it happens to be one of my favorite pieces.  In opera, the ideal Overture tells the entire story in miniature.  Running at roughly 15 minutes long, Rossini’s Semiramide Overture is so great that it is frequently performed as a standalone at symphony orchestra concerts.  Aside from that sadly haunting French-horn melody (starting around 40 seconds in), a Leitmotif that worms its way into one’s very soul, the piece as a whole is upbeat, bouncy, “High-yo Silver” type music that conjures up images of galloping horses. (Rossini was good at horsey music, recall that he also wrote the opera William Tell, whose Overture was used in the American TV series The Lone Ranger!)  Despite which, Semiramide is not really about horses, nor even chariots, it is a domestic soap opera involving family affairs and court intrigues.  The Aeschylus-like themes of murder and divine revenge are sometimes completely at odds with the toe-tappable tunes — and this inappropriate conjunction of the music and the story is one of the things I appreciate most about this opera.  When the characters are up there on the stage belting out (with exquisite trills and ornaments) such lines as “This dark murder must be avenged by the Gods” whilst the orchestra is sawing away at a jamboree — Only a blithering genius like Rossini could get away with that!

I found this youtube video of the Overture, those of you who are not familiar with it, listen for yourselves and envisage happy Scythians galloping over the steppes of Central Asia as they bring valuable tribute to their distant Assyrian Queen:

The Live in HD host of this event, baritone Christopher Maltman, explained why this masterpiece is so rarely performed:  It is simply too difficult to sing.  This is a Bel canto work of art, one needs not an ordinary tenor but a coloratura tenor.  And similarly a coloratura soprano, mezzo, and not one, but two coloratura bass-baritones.  There are such singers out there in the world, but their schedules are complicated, they are much in demand, and it is a real logistics issue to get them all together in one place for the same season.

In tomorrow’s episode we will learn who these marvelous singers are, and who put together this merry little crew of Mesopotamian madness!

[to be continued]

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Bilyaletdinov On Norwegian Skiiers: “I pity those poor asthmatics.”

“I ski fast.  That’s why I’m here.”
(the Robert Redford character in the movie Downhill Racer)

Dear Readers:  Tomorrow (hopefully) I will have a real treat for you:  My review of the Metropolitan Opera production of Semiramide – yay!

But please be patient, because, for today, we are in the world of sports!

Bilyaletdinov Speaks Out

Grizzled, popular and outspoken Russian football coach Rinat Bilyaletdinov (Army Sports Club of Khabarovsk – СКА-Хабаровск) had a few choice words to say about all that doping going on at the Winter Olympics.   And not by Russia, but by Norway!

Rinat Bilyaletdinov: “J’accuse!”

In this lengthy interview with Sport-24 (Reporter = Alexander Muyzhnek), Bilyaletdinov covered a host of topics, but I am focusing on just one juicy sound-bite towards the end of the piece.  This section of the interview is entitled:  “Norwegian Skiiers Belong At the Special Olympics“.  Might sound like sour grapes, but it’s funny because it’s true.  The backstory, of course, is Norway’s phenomenal success at the recent Olympics in South Korea.  When all was said and done, and the eternal flame snuffed out, Norway had wone the games hands down with 39 medals, 14 of them Gold!  People attending the games heard the Norwegian anthem played more times than sailors on the Pequod heard Captain Ahab addressing fellow-seafarers with his standard greeting “Hast seen the White Whale?

“Wheez wheez… where’s my inhaler?”

Granted, there is a certain point of view out there on the internet.  Certain Internet People claim that Russia actually won these Olympics.  Not in the sense of a moral victory either, but an actual physical victory.  Because these folks believe that the only two events that truly matter there are Hockey and Ladies Figure Skating.  If true, then Russia did actually win.  I personally don’t hold to that view, I believe with all my heart that Curling, Snowboard Acrobatics, cramming three men into a Bobsled, and Skeletoning and the like, are equally important.  If not, then why even do them?  I personally would like to see even more events , like, for example, tumbling people down the mountain in a giant hamster ball, and see who gets to the bottom first.  Or maybe — hey, if Water Polo is a real sport, then why not Ice Polo?  With horses?

May it flutter forever…

But returning to the Glory that is Norway:  What, oh what, was the secret of this great nation’s success, aside from a long tradition of snow sports, and the fact that Norwegian babies are all born on skis?  Doping, of course.  Anabolic Steroids are the Gold Standard for building muscles, increasing endurance, and overall performance enhancement.  Now, the Norwegian cross-country skiiers are routinely given anabolic steroids under the guise of asthma medication.  It’s a known fact, but they get to keep their medals, because this sytem is considered kosher by The Powers That Be.  Those judgey gods and goddesses who reign Up there on the Olympian Heights.  They who decide, in their infinite wisdom, that asthma medications produced in Western countries are okay, and yet Meldonium is not okay.

Bilyaletdinov’s ire is triggered when Muyzhnek brings up the issue (4 segments from the end) of a Russian footballer named Ruslan Kambolov, who was apparently accused of doping.  This sends Bilyaletdinov on a rant about Western athletes faking various conditions in order to disguise their use of anabolic steroids.

The veteran coach retorts that Kambolov received a serious injury (trauma), and the docs had to prescribe pain medication.  “But certain substances, which were permitted 20-30 years ago, are now, it seems, forbidden.  There is this substance called kenalog.  In the 80’s it was impossible to obtain.  It consisted of 4 doses, each costing 25 rubles.  In those days people’s salaries were 89-90 rubles, and here one packet (of kenalog) costs 100 rubles! (….)  This kenalog was an [effective] treatment for muscle injuries when the tear [in the muscle] was not extensive. (….)  And now kenalog has been declared to be an anabolic.  Why?  It’s all about the money.  Meldonium is a medicine, it’s not doping.  People are told they have to take the American equivalent, which is 10 times more expensive….”

Ruslan Kambolov (in the red and green)

[yalensis:  Meldonium is a medicine, developed in the USSR, which is used to treat coronary artery disease.  In 2016 the World Doping Agency contracted by the Olympics declared it to be a performance enhancer, banned it, and retroactively punished Russian athletes who had been using it.]

Bilyaletdinov continues:  “I am not a doctor, it is not my place to judge, which substances should be banned, and which not….”  Bilyaletdinov then challenges the reporter:  “Do you know why I didn’t follow the Olympics?”  “No, why?”  “Because I couldn’t bear to look at those Norwegian skiiers.  Every one of them — an asthmatic!  With such diagnoses, they belong at the Para-lympics.  They need to get cured, and yet they stand on their so-called therapeutical exceptions.  Or get a load of that American gymnast — turns out she has ADHD.  My Lord, what is doing on the balance beam?  You’re going to hurt yourself, my poor dear!  Or get a load those female tennis players with male hormones.  They have the type of musculature that any muzhik would envy!”

Like I said, it’s funny because it’s true.

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