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’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.
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.
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]