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Semiramide review at Royal Opera House, London – ‘an intermittent sense of inertia’

Joyce DiDonato in Semiramide at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Joyce DiDonato in Semiramide at Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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The Royal Opera’s new production of Rossini’s melodramma tragico Semiramide – its first full staging at the venue since 1887 – was struck by cancellations. Initially announced in the role of Babylonian prince Assur – the chief villain of the piece – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was replaced due to illness by Michele Pertusi; but on the first night Pertusi himself was taken ill and replaced during the interval by Mirco Palazzi, himself scheduled to take over the role for the final performance of the run.

Pertusi’s indisposition clearly impacted on David Alden’s production (first seen in Munich in February), and the evening picked up from Palazzi’s first scene. Singing with firm tone and dramatic conviction, he helps give the enterprise greater security – and indeed it certainly needs some help at this point, and even later on.

At nearly four hours in length, Rossini’s opera contains much magnificent music and some dramatic scenes, but the evening does not escape an intermittent sense of inertia.

Alden exchanges ancient Babylon for some non-specific contemporary dictatorship, perhaps with Islamic resonances. Much of the action centring on betrayal and regicide, near-incest and retribution, remains clear, though the flapping golden sheath worn by Jacquelyn Stucker’s fluent Princess Azema, together with her alternating immobility and stumbling gait, are mystifying.

For once, even Antonio Pappano’s conducting feels short on momentum; in one early chorus, the choral entries were consistently behind the beat.

The chief compensations – and they are real enough – lie in the singing of the principals. Lawrence Brownlee has all the notes and a keen sense of style as Indian king Idreno. Daniela Barcellona is on unbeatable form as Semiramide’s long-lost son and innamorato Arsace, while in the title role Joyce DiDonato melds notes and drama together in a performance of extraordinary virtuosity and expressive mastery.

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Though Rossini’s lengthy opera suffers health problems on its first night, the singing triumphs