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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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]