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.
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.
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 (?)
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]