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Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Semiramide (Rossini)

An Opera by Gioacchino Antonio Rossini

Opera in two acts by Rossini, words by Gaetana Rossi, founded on Voltaire’s tragedy, "Sémiramis." Produced, February 3, 1823, Fenice Theatre, Venice; London, King’s Theatre, July 15, 1824; Paris, July 9, 1860, as Sémiramis; New York, April 25, 1826; 1855 (with Grisi and Vestivalli); 1890 (with Patti and Scalchi).


SEMIRAMIDE, Queen of Babylon……………………. Soprano
ARSACES, Commander of the Assyrian Army……….. Contralto
GHOST OF NINUS……………………………………. Bass
OROE, Chief of the Magi……………………………… Bass
ASSUR, a Prince………………………………………. Baritone
AZEMA, a Princess……………………………………. Soprano
IDRENUS of the royal house household………….. Tenor
MITRANUS …………. Baritone
Magi, Guards, Satraps, Slaves
Time: Antiquity.
Place: Babylon.

"Semiramide" seems to have had its day. Yet, were a soprano and a contralto, capable of doing justice to the roles of Semiramide and Arsaces, to appear in conjunction in the operatic firmament the opera might be successfully revived, as it was for Patti and Scalchi. The latter, in her prime when she first appeared here, was one of the greatest of contraltos. I think that all, who, like myself, had the good fortune to hear that revival of "Semiramide," still consider the singing by Patti and Scalchi of the duet, "Giorno d’orrore" (Day of horror) the finest example of bel canto it has been their privilege to listen to. For beauty and purity of tone, smoothness of phrasing, elegance, and synchronization of embellishment it has not been equalled here since.

In the first act of the opera is a brilliant aria for Semiramide, "Bel raggio lusinghier" (Bright ray of hope), -- the one piece that has kept the opera in the phonograph repertoire.

A priests’ march and chorus, which leads up to the finale of the first act, is accompanied not only by orchestra, but also by full military band on the stage, the first instance of the employment of the latter in Italian opera. The duet, "Giorno d’orrore," is in the second act.

For many years the overture to "Semiramide" was a favourite at popular concerts. It was admired for the broad, hymnlike air in the introduction, which in the opera becomes an effective chorus.

and for the graceful, lively melody, which is first announced on the clarinet. I call it "graceful" and "lively," and so it would be considered today. But in the opera it accompanies

the cautions entrance of priest into a darkened temple where a deep mystery is impending, and, at the time the opera was produced, this music, which now we would describe as above, was supposed to be "shivery" and gruesome. In fact the scene was objected to by audiences of that now seemingly remote period, on the ground that the orchestra was too prominent and that, in the treatment of the instrumental score to his opera, Rossini was leaning too heavily toward German models! But this, remember, was in 1824.

The story of "Semiramide" can be briefly told. Semiramia, Queen of Babylon, has murdered her husband, Ninus, the King. In this deed she was assisted by Prince Assur, who expects to win her hand and the succession to the throne.

Semiramide, however, is enamoured of a comely youth, Arsaces, victorious commander of her army, and supposedly a Scythian, but in reality her own son, of which relationship only Oroe, the chief priest of the temple, is aware. Arsaces himself is in love with the royal Princess Azema.

At a gathering in the temple, the gates of the tomb of Ninus are opened as if by invisible hands. The shade of Ninus announces that Arsaces shall be his successor; and summons him to come to the tomb at midnight there to learn the secret of his assassination.

Enraged at the prophecy of the succession of Arsaces and knowing of his coming visit to the tomb of Ninus, Assur contrives to enter it; while Semiramide, who now knows that the young warrior is her son, comes to the tomb to warn him against Assur. The three principal personages in the drama are thus brought together at its climax. Assur makes what would be a fatal thrust at Arsaces. Semiramide interposes herself between the two men and receives the death wound. Arsaces then fights and kills Assur, ascends the throne and weds Azema.

According to legend, Semiramis, when a babe, was fed by doves; and, after reigning for forty-two years, disappeared or was changed into a dove and flew away. For the first New York performance Garcia announced the work as "La Figlia del’Aria, or Semiramide" (The Daughter of the Air, etc.)

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