Fear and Trembling in Katonah

The plot of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide sounds like it was made up by one of those people who hates opera.

We’re in Babylon, eight centuries B.C. The queen, Semiramide, has killed her husband, as queens were wont to do, with the help of a power-hungry prince, Assur, who now expects to marry her. But she’s in love with an army captain, Arsace, who doesn’t love her and who—spoiler alert!—turns out to be her son, gone missing after the death of his father. (In another fun twist, the son is played by a female singer in drag.)

Like basically every other male character in the opera, Assur is in love with the princess Azema, who pops up every once in a while to look pretty and act cipherish. Oh, and at the end the son kills his mom—unintentionally, kinda. Then he gets to be king! Curtain!

This hodgepodge of familiar Shakespearean and Sophoclean themes is mostly incomprehensible in summary, but in performance—even a bare-bones concert performance like the one presented at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, N.Y., on Aug. 1—it feels like very serious business.

The libretto has an incredible number of variations on the verb “to tremble”—everyone is always saying “I’m trembling!” or yelling “Tremble!”—and it is Rossini’s genius that it never seems over the top, that all this trembling seems an entirely persuasive description of the characters’ seething emotional states.

As with all great opera, Semiramide is about emotions, about feeling them, and not just making do but making use of the constraints of musical form to instruct us how to deal with them, too. (That is: beautifully.) Will Crutchfield, conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, demonstrated how the precisely controlled rigor of early 19th-century opera can yield tremendous excitement. Even though Rossini’s serious operas are still rarities, especially in the United States—perhaps because of their daunting length, perhaps because their steady, serene pace is even more foreign to us than the increasingly popular operas of the Baroque period—Semiramide is riveting for every one of its 200 or so minutes. O.K., well, almost.

When Vivica Genaux, as the army captain Arsace, walked slowly onstage near the start of the opera, swathed in a black leather trench coat, her hair pulled tightly back, her haunted face—she looked as though she’d seen a ghost—established before she’d sung a note that this was no occasion for camp.

Ms. Genaux is a Caramoor favorite; indeed, it was her 1996 performance in the title role of Rossini’s Cinderella opera, La Cenerentola, that inaugurated the ongoing summer opera festival “Bel Canto at Caramoor.” And when she opened her mouth, she delivered the coloratura goods to spirited ovations. She is charismatic and well prepared (the only singer Saturday night to go onstage without a score), and she partners with other singers excitingly, a crucial quality in an opera so dependent on showstopping duets.

More interesting was Angela Meade, the young American soprano making her role debut as Queen Semiramide. It’s a killer part—a hundred minutes of intensely difficult music—but she sailed through it as though none of its challenges particularly perturbed her. At the start, there was a sense that she was pacing herself. “Bel raggio lusinghier,” the celebrated scene in which Semiramide longs for Arsace, was slightly tentative, the coloratura a little breathy and the lower part of her range a little weak.

But she launched an interpolated high F that made the audience gasp, and especially in the second act, she let loose huge waves of sound that indicated that, someday, she’ll be the Verdi soprano she wants to be.

Both she and Ms. Genaux were memorable in the great second-act duet for Semiramide and Arsace, “Giorno d’orrore,” when the blending of their voices, sailing in and out of harmony, produced a parallel to their search—always just barely passing each other’s understanding—for harmony in their relationship. And moments like that, when the singing and the words sung are so perfectly conjoined? That is opera.

I almost wish that Ms. Meade’s voice didn’t seem to make things so easy for her. She has a kind of complacency on the stage, a resistance to acting with her voice. Of course, Semiramide is a brand-new part, and this was a concert presentation, but a little more experimentation with it would have been exciting. Perhaps with the right stage director, one who will push her to do more than rest on the laurels of her extraordinary talent, she will fully inhabit the complexities of the roles she takes on.

In any case, it’s going to be fascinating to follow her career. A single Met performance, coming up in December, as the Countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro may not show her to her best advantage; audiences used to the melting plushness of Renee Fleming or Kiri Te Kanawa in the part may not enjoy Ms. Meade’s more focused, spinto sound. But Ms. Fleming had better watch her back later in the season: Ms. Meade is covering her in the Met premiere of another serious Rossini opera, Armida, and if called on to perform, it could well be a night to remember.

 

Fear and Trembling in Katonah