NEW YORK — GIOACCHINO ROSSINI'S "Semiramide" has such florid and complicated singing the Metropolitan Opera Company hasn't produced it since 1894 and then with the famed Nellie Melba in one of the four key roles. In the intervening century, Rosa Ponselle and Ezio Pinza were once considered, but another vital singer asn't found so the project was scrapped.
Friday night the Met in New York found all three plus more and produced a smash four-hour hit before a sold-out house. Leading the way as she's led the recent revival of Rossini was a terrific Marilyn Horne, in the male role composed for a deep contralto, the army commander Arsace in Mesopotamia (nowadays Iraq). Making up the opera's important trio as two power-hungry Assyrians were soprano Lella Cuberli in a moving Met debut as the terrible Queen of Babylon and bass Samuel Ramey, the evil prince Assur.
Baltimore tenor Chris Merritt, in his own Met debut, was the nice guy and loser in love in the lesser role of the Indian Prince Idreno. Singing splendidly with great technical skill, he sang four arias and passages stemming from his love for the princess Azema. Merritt was right on the mark with his high notes and reached his peak appropriately in the Act II aria, "I implore you, dearest, just love me." He offered some excellent soft and slow love notes, but the score allowed the role few emotional peaks or memorable melodies.
The audience bestowed Merritt warm and polite applause but went slightly crazy over the more passionate Rossini melodies sung to perfection by Horne, Cuberli and Ramey. At end, the enthusiastic audience awarded the entire company almost a dozen curtain calls in 10 minutes, perhaps unusual this season.
Oddly, the production of two acts and 19 scenes began limply under conductor James Conlon with the most famous music of the opera, the lengthy 10-minute overture. Timing was off in parts; solos and other sections such as the great crescendo sometimes failed to connect with the whole. Fortunately, later on, Conlon led the singers and orchestra in picking up the overture's threads beautifully, especially its main strand, recaptured as the prelude to the male chorus singing "A traitor with evil daring."
The evening's highlights were the solos and duet singing of Horne and Cuberli and Ramey's Act II mad scene.
Where else but in opera would this be believable -- an older female singer (Horne) played a young male soldier's role opposite a younger female singer (Cuberli) acting as an older woman, who doesn't realize until later she is his mother as well as lover?
Horne and Cuberli made it believable with luscious singing. Horne's signature low vibrating voice flowed in crescendos of notes with the fluidity of a mountain stream. Cuberli sang her decadent arias with intense hate, horror, revenge and even love. Their duet "Day of Horror and of Joy" was powerful.
Michael Stennett's costumes were lavish, while the set, designed by John Conklin, was one adventure after another.