Today it is time to end the sad story of Queen Shammu-Ramat of Babylon. I believe that I have established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Magi were behind all of the so-called “supernatural” features of this story, namely the utterings of the Libyan Oracle and the meanderings of the so-called “Ghost of Ninus” — clearly a Magi agent disguising himself as a ghost by slapping on a fake beard and donning an ashy-looking robe. I believe that this was Voltaire’s intention, as well (Voltaire being a guy who abhorred all forms of religion and superstition), although the point is not made as clearly in the opera itself.
In the production I attended the Ghost was sung by bass-baritone Jeremy Galyon, who was scary enough, not to mention a really good singer, to convince one that ghosts actually exist! But seriously, if ghosts actually existed, then homicide detectives would not even be needed any more: The dead could rise from their graves and tell us exactly what happened to them!
It is said that the young Voltaire regarded himself as the French Shakespeare, and even wrote his own version of “Hamlet” to correct the Bard’s “mistakes”, while slapping on a happy ending. Full disclosure: I have not read Voltaire’s Hamlet, but I hope he got rid of that ghost. It always bothered me that a major plot exposition is shelled out by a dead guy. As a materialist I am pretty sure that the dead don’t talk!
That being said, the King Ninus Ghost’s first major appearance (aside from some random groanings in the streets) takes place when Queen Shammy calls her big meeting of the court, all the guests, the priests, and the people of Babylon, to make her big announcement: She is going to marry Arsaces – tada! It’s a surprise announcement — certainly a surprise to Arsaces himself, who thought he was going to be wed to Princess Azema. Note that in the chronology of the story, this announcement takes place before Arsaces has learned who he really is. Shammy doesn’t know this either, yet, but I believe I have established beyond a shadow of a doubt, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, that High Priest Speedo and the rest of the Magi are fully cognizant of the situation.
By Assyrian custom, according to which a widow must ask her dead hubby’s permission to re-marry [I just made that up], Shammy convenes her big announcement at the entrance to ex-hub’s tomb.
Her monologue is a masterpiece of self-justification, and shows that Voltaire was a keen observer of the female brain. Hillary Shammy subtly complains about her ex-husband’s treatment of her. Apparently hub was a male chauvinist and kept her chained to domestic duties, such as spinning and sewing. But she watched him out of the corner of her eye. how he ruled the empire, and she convinced herself that she could do a better job. Which she did, once the sceptre was “forced upon her”. She boasts to her courtiers what a great ruler she has turned out to be. Despite her being of the inferior gender, she has made Assyria prosperous, once again mighty, and even extended its territorial conquests. Implication being that her subjects should be grateful for her rule; instead of which, they constantly demand that somebody with XY chromosomes be put on the Winged Throne. So be it, these people are implacably sexist, and so she has picked out their new ruler for them:
You want a king who may be worthy of you,
Worthy of such an empire, shall I add
Worthy the hand that crowns him, and the heart
Which I shall give: I have consulted heaven,
My country’s weal, the interest of mankind,
And choose a king to make the world more happy.
Adore the hero, see in him revived
The princes of my honored race; observe him,
And know, this king, this hero, is—Arsaces.
[She descends from the throne, and they all rise.
As the crowd is going “ooh” and “ah” (because they all thought she was going to pick Assur), this is the very moment when the so-called Ghost of Ninus rises out of his tomb to thwart the incestuous nuptials, ’cause, remember, the Magi know the whole backstory, and they also knew of Shammy’s intention to tie the knot with Arsaces.
In typical Magi style, the Ghost doesn’t give a direct answer to Shammy’s question as to what he wants or intends. Instead, ignoring her, he turns to Arsaces and intones:
Thou shalt reign,
Arsaces, but there are some dreadful crimes
Which thou must expiate: hie thee to the tomb,
And to my ashes offer sacrifice:
Serve me and Ninias: remember well
Thy father: listen to the pontiff.
By “listen to the pontiff”, he means: “Do everything that High Priest Speedo tells you to do!” The Magi have an elaborate plan already in place, a plan which includes getting Assur out the way and assassinating the Queen — but their first order of business is to prevent the incestuous marriage, pronto.
And the command to “hie thee to the tomb” hints at the outcome which the Magi have already set up, in their special ops campaign. See, there is a system of tunnels and trapdoors linking the palace, the Temple of Ba’al, and the Tomb of Ninus.
Long story short: Speedo eventually tells Arsaces the truth about who he is. Barely has Arsaces reeled from his big reveal, when Speedo orders the sensitive lad to kill his own mom. Arsaces/Ninias is hot to trot, but once he comes face to face with mom, he finds that he is incapable of whacking her, he is an Italian boy after all.
The ensuing duet between the two female voices (soprano and mezzo-soprano) is one of Rossini’s masterpieces of Bel canto ornamentation. In a previous radio interview, soprano Angela Meade divulged how she and Elizabeth Deshong (Arsaces) had worked out their “ornaments” for the duet. Apparently Rossini has notations in the score which allow the singers to improvise their own ornaments and trills, on occasion. Angela told the interviewer that she and Elizabeth had worked together just previously on a completely different production — I forget where she said, but I think it was Kansas — another hint, by the way, of the laudatory deep bench that is American opera, even unto the hinterlands! — and decided to practice their duet for the upcoming Semiramide. Angela was very generous to her co-star: She allowed Elizabeth to compose the main ornaments, as completely suited the latter’s voice, and then tuned her own voice to complement those ornaments. The result was fine.
So, in this duet, Arsaces/Ninias reveals all to his mom. The whole backstory, as he learned it from the Magi. Mom apologizes to him for offing dear old dad, they sing their beautiful duet, they realize they love each other, but in the right way, he is not capable of killing She Who Gave Him Birth, but he is more than ready to kill their mutual enemy, that asshole Assur. And sets off with his sword into the maze of underground tunnels to accomplish this worthy goal.
Long story short: The Magi will not be thwarted in their plan, not even by Ninias and his Mother-Son duet. There is some confusing business in the tunnels. While chasing Colonel Mustard, the lights go off. Ninias stabs a warm body whom he is SUR is As-SUR. But no, it turns out to be Mom! Egads! He did kill his own mother! Like Orestes with instant Eumenides, he tries to turn the sword upon himself, but Speedo intervenes to take it away. Next thing you go, Ninias is being crowned as new King of Babylon while Princess Noxzema preens herself as the next Queen-in-waiting; Shammy lies in a dead heap at the front of the stage; and Assur is being led away in chains.
Bravo, brava, and bravissimos, everybodys!