ALL great prima donnas have in theïr repertoire the majority of famous operas, but through fitness of physique or temperament or quality of voice they become associated with certain rôles more than others. Sometimes it is merely a caprice of the public that holds them to a particular line of operas. At present Madame Sembrich is regarded as the great exponent of the old Italian school. Among her thirty-seven operas “Semiramide ” is one in which New Yorkers have not yet heard her; but it is in some respects the most typical of its kind.
” Semiramide ” belongs to the old style of Italian operas. It is light in substance, but glistening with scales and cadenzas that are scattered over it like spangles upon tulle. Rossini’s music is always beautiful but conveys little meaning, and it impresses the modern musical taste like a meal of bon-bons. Although Semiramis lived hundreds of years before the Christian era, we listen in vain for any ancient atmosphere to the composition or for the ” melodrame tragico,” as designated by the libretto. This music would be as suitable to the Barber of Seville ” as to the “Queen of Babylon.” In other words, the old operas were a series of separate songs adapted to a connected story, whereas we now expect the score so thoroughly to embody the text that the two are inseparable.
” Semiramide,” however, bears several claims to distinction that prevent the possibility of extinction. It is the opera par excellence of duets. They are the delightful, old-fashioned kind, wherein the two voices are side by side, only separated by a perfect third; and when the conductor has whipped up a good tempo away they go like a span of horses, over hills and valleys of scales and arpeggios, bridged-over intervals, and clumps of trills. Differing from all other operas, this one gives as much prominence to the contralto as to the soprano. They must have equal facility of execution; and, in-deed, none of the rôles are exempt from this demand. Tenor, contralto, baritone, and bass vie with each other in performing dangerous feats of vocal agility. There are passages where they all, one after another, run up a scale and land on a certain note, like athletes jumping from a spring-board. We smile at such display, and are inclined to regard the opera as one big solfeggio; but let it not be forgotten that this is the old Italian style, and interesting from this point of view.
Another claim to lasting fame is its overtureone of the prettiest, happiest, showiest orchestral compositions extant. It is a stock program piece, being simple enough for any orchestra to perform and yet rousing enough always to elicit applause.
The opening scene represents a temple wherein Oroe, the chief of the Magi, is discovered kneeling before an altar. He has received a celestial revelation of some dark crime that is awaiting vengeance, and his first short recitative refers to this secret. Arising from his knees, Oroe orders the gates of the temple to be opened. The Assyrian multitude enter bearing offerings and garlands, while they sing a light melody that would do for a modern topical song. Idrenus, an Indian prince, also comes in with his attendants, bearing incense and offerings. He is the tenor, but unimportant, because this opera has no love-scene, and consequently little use for a tenor. Assur, an Assyrian potentate, is another devout supplicant at the altar of Beha.s. We soon learn the occasion of these earnest efforts to propitiate the gods : Semiramis, the queen, will to-day select a successor to the late King Ninus.
A very good example of what we consider the incongruities of the old school is found in these first two arias of Idrenus and Assur. The tenor comes in alone and delivers a flourishing solo, ornate as his costume.
Then Assur, the basso, makes his entrance and sings in a lower key the same remark-able pyrotechnics. This antagonizes the fundamental rule of modern opera, which requires each character to maintain a musical individuality. There is some further conversation in the form of a terzetto between Idrenus, Assur, and Oroe, and the fact is disclosed that Assur expects the queen’s choice to fall on him.
Another light and bright chorus announces the entrance of Semiramis. She is represented as young and beautiful, altho she is a widow and the mother of a son who mysteriously disappeared years be-fore the story opens. But radiant as is her appearance, Semiramis opens the ceremonies with uneasiness, for she has determined to make Arsaces the future king. He is a young army officer, and there is no just reason why he should be favored ; but the queen has become enamored of him. Arsaces, however, is unconscious of her infatuation. She has summoned him to this ceremony ; but he has not yet arrived, and for this reason she hesitates. In a quartet that is worked up like a rondo upon a very pleasing theme, the others urge her to begin. She reluctantly steps forward, but at her first mention of the dead king there is a flash of lightning and the sacred fires are extinguished. The people regard this as a dire omen. Oroe glances knowingly at both Semiramis and Assur as he again refers to a crime that has aroused the wrath of the gods. He orders the ceremonies to be postponed pending the arrival of a sacred oracle from Memphis. The queen and her attendants withdraw, and the temple is vacated.
The orchestra plays through several pages of sixty-fourth and thirty-second notes, after which the interesting and important Arsaces enters with two slaves who bring a casket. Arsaces is always a very youthful and impossible-looking general, in spite of his glittering cuirass, for be it known this is the contralto rôle, and, musically speaking, a very great one.
We learn from his first recitative that this casket contains precious documents and relics of the late king which have been guarded and concealed by Phradates, the supposed father of Arsaces. Phradates has recently died, and in compliance with his request Arsaces brings these treasures to the high priest. We also learn that the young general is puzzled over the queen’s summons; and last, but not least, we learn that he is in love with the beautiful Princess Azema. The mere mention of her name starts him to singing a rapturous song, bubbling over with brilliant roulades. After presenting his casket to the high priest, Arsaces encounters Assur, who soon makes it known that he also loves the fair Azema. This so maddens Arsaces that he resolves at once to ask Semiramis for the hand of the princess. These rivals cordially hate each other, but Rossini inspires them to sing the same melodies, and their voices mingle in beautiful harmony of tone and rhythm.
The second rising of the curtain reveals Semiramis reclining under a bower in her palace garden. She is surrounded by maidens and slaves who sing languid, luxuriant melodies for her diversion. Rossini’s style is well suited to this scene. As the arias are presented one by one, it is like unfolding the contents of an Assyrian treasure-chest full of shimmering silks and glittering jewels. Among this collection there is one gem called the ” Bel Raggio,” a name as famous in its way as the Koh-i-noor. This musical brilliant belongs to Queen Semiramis, who displays its scintillating beauty with evident pride. The ” Bel Raggio ” is one of the four great corner-stones of the bravura singer’s repertoire, of which the remaining three are : ” Una voce poco fa,” also by Rossini ; the Dinorah ” Shadow Song,” and Eckert’s “Echo Song.” When listening to ” Bel Raggio ” one should never try to follow the words or even wonder what she is saying. Just listen to the music. Those radiant, ravishing, intoxicating warbles and runs tell one plainly enough that she is happy, and this is sufficient.
Semiramis is awaiting Arsaces and the oracle from Memphis. The latter is received first, and bears the cheering words, ” Thy peace shall be restored with the re-turn of Arsaces.” True to the nature of oracles, this one has a double meaning, and Semiramis construes it in the wrong way. When Arsaces enters there follows a bevy of famous duets. But the conversation is quite at cross purposes. Arsaces tells of a long-cherished love, which Semiramis thinks is for herself. She promises that all his hopes shall be realized, whereupon the two wander off side by side through a forest of cadences, roulades, and scales. They some-times become separated, when the soprano pauses to run up the scale-ladder and pluck a brilliant high note; or the contralto lingers to pick up tones that are rich and full as fallen fruit; but they finally emerge together, trilling high and low like birds from a thicket.
The third scene represents a magnificent hall in the palace. There are, of course, a throne and other “properties,” but most conspicuous is the tomb or mausoleum of Ninus. For a second time the Assyrian noblemen and people gather to hear the appointment of a new king. As they sing a sweeping march, Semiramis enters more gorgeously arrayed than ever. She takes her place at the throne, and with an. imperious gesture commands allegiance to the king of her choice. These regal phrases contain such a prodigality of dazzling colorature that we are reminded of the far-famed hanging gardens devised by this same extravagant queen. In the matter of lavish display the music of Semiramide ” is strikingly appropriate. Assur, Arsaces, Idrenus, and Oroe vow obedience, and their hymn-like ensemble is one of the grandest themes Rossini ever composed. Like the prayer from Weber’s ” Freischütz,” this quintet has long held a place in church choir-books, and a more religious and inspiring melody could hardly be imagined. The soprano scatters delicious appoggiaturas and cadenzas above the steady and noble ensemble like flowers upon an altar. The ” Semiramide Quintet ” is another one of its claims to lasting fame.
In a lighter vein is the queen’s next proclamation, to the effect that the future king shall also be her husband. This arouses general surprise. But when she finally designates Arsaces, the amazement on all sides is loud. Assur demands justice from the queen, insinuating some secret compact that she dare not disregard. He is haughtily silenced by Semiramis, who at the same time bestows upon him the hand of fair Azema.
Poor Arsaces is beside himself. He tries to explain, but the queen will listen to no remonstrances. An altar is brought for-ward, and the priests are about to pronounce the marriage bans when a hollow, subterranean sound and distant thunder cause consternation. The people are horrified to behold the tomb of Ninus slowly open and its occupant step forth. Turning to Arsaces, the ghost bids him avenge a terrible crime: ” With courage into my tomb descend ; there to my ashes a victim thou shalt offer. But first obey the counsel of the priest.” The ghost disappears, and the act closes with a strong chorus of dismay. Semiramis leads the singing, and for once her music has only prim quarter-notes and half-notes : her colorature is all frightened away.
The next act contains an interview between Assur and Semiramis, wherein we learn about the crime so often referred to. The late King Ninus was poisoned by Assur, who had been promised the throne. But the guilty queen has since preferred Arsaces, and this explains Assur’s great anger. He threatens to kill the young favorite ; but Semiramis has resumed her ostentatious manner and music, and will not heed his words.
There follows a scene in the queen’s apartment. She is still striving to win Arsaces, but her overtures repel him more than ever. He has just returned from an interview with the priest. The contents of the casket have been revealed to him, and he shows Semiramis a paper proving the startling fact that Arsaces himself is her long-lost son. He has also learned that Ninus, his father, was murdered. Remorse promptly overtakes the queen. She weeps and wails in chromatics and scales that quite touch Arsaces. They sing a glorious duet that is like a benediction, so noble and pure are its harmonies. It is called “Giorno d’orrore ” (day of horror). Arsaces bids his mother adieu. He is going to the tomb to avenge his father’s death, tho he knows not how nor whom he shall strike. It rests with the gods to guide him; he only obeys the command. There follows another smoothly flowing duet resembling all the others in its simple structure, unmistakable rhythm, and prominent melody.
The finale of ” Semiramide ” has little to commend it, being absurd in action and presenting only one pleasing or noticeable theme. This is a dainty, quaint violin passage that delighted us in the overture, but which we never thought of connecting with a tragic climax. How different is this tomb music from that of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet! ” There the marvelous harmonies are like sweet dreams accompanying the sleep of death, but here we are only conscious of the ” deep, damp vault, the darkness and the worm.”
The chief absurdity of this scene lies in the fact that it should be too dark for the characters to see each other and yet it must be light enough for the audience to see everything. Another incongruity is the assembling of all the principals and a good-sized chorus in this tomb where we expected Arsaces alone. But it is explained that Assur heard of the hero’s coming and planned to follow with the intention of killing him ; Oroe heard of Assur’s plan and brings an armed guard to protect Arsaces; and, finally, Semiramis follows because she is anxious about everybody and everything.
They enter at different times; grope around among tombs, and pretend not to see each other. Arsaces finally hears and recognizes the voice of Assur. He has no doubt that the gods have sent Assur to be the victim. The hero promptly stabs in the direction of the voice, but because it is so very dark he happens to kill Semiramis instead of Assur. But this mistake does not much affect either the music or the action. The final chorus of the opera is as light and bright as the first.