Rare encounter with Rossini's 'Semiramide'

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

An old joke in opera circles goes that a semi-"ramide" is better than a whole one (I didn't say it was a good joke). But for Rossini fans, this sprawling melodrama, "Semiramide" from 1823, represents one of the composer's finest achievements.

Opportunities to savor the piece don't materialize all that often. The only occasions that I can recall in these parts have come without benefit of staging — a Washington Concert Opera presentation a couple years ago, another from Baltimore Concert Opera this weekend.

Losing out on scenery and costumes is always a shame, especially with a work as convoluted as this one is, plot-wise, and as atmospheric in setting — ancient Babylon, where the gardens aren't the only things hanging. There's a lot of guilt and conspiracy in the air, too. Oh, yes, and a ghost.

In brief: Queen Semiramide and the ambitious prince Assur conspired to kill King Nino, who now haunts the place seeking revenge. Semiramide gets dangerously close to marrying her own long-lost son, Arsace, before things get straightened out. Not happily straightened, though. Semiramide gets mistakenly killed by her own son, who was trying to slay Assur.

Like I said, having lots of visuals can help to keep all the convolutions straight, the implausibilities a little clearer.

But Rossini's richly lyrical score is alone worth the attention. Much of that score's power, however, comes from what the composer poured into the orchestration. And that's where Baltimore Concert Opera cannot help but come up short.

The company, which performs in the elegant, modest-sized ballroom of the Engineers Club, uses only keyboard accompaniment.

If only they would at least rent a full-fledged, pristine concert grand piano for each occasion. The tinny house instrument just doesn't measure up. On Friday night, pianist Aurelien Eulert fell short, too, in nuance and, at times, precision.

The cast, which performs again Sunday afternoon, features singers who will appear in a fully staged version of "Semiramide" in a few weeks at Opera Delaware, a company revitalized and run by Baltimore Concert Opera founding artistic director Brendan Cooke.

Lindsay Ohse employs her sweet soprano effectively as Semiramide. The top of the voice doesn't open up easily, but the rest is sure and well-focused. In the "trouser role" of Arsace, mezzo Aleksandra Romano reveals a plush tone, agile technique and a flair for passionate phrasing. The two singers blended seamlessly in their duet.

Timothy Augustin's thin tenor is not enough to flesh out the role of Idreno, an Indian prince. The assignments for low male voices are filled amply and vividly by bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs (Assur), bass Harold Wilson (as high priest Oroe) and Young Bok Kim (the ghost of Nino). The chorus does more or less firm work.

Anthony Barrese's straight-ahead conducting misses many an opportunity to sculpt melodic lines and bend tempos. But the propulsion pays off, as does some trimming of the score, bringing the performance time a bit under three hours.

Baltimore Concert Opera will open its 2017-2018 season with another Rossini masterwork, this one known best for its overture — "William Tell" (the famously long opera will be abridged).

Also planned next season: Massenet's haunting "Werther"; Sondheim's bracing "Sweeney Todd"; and a double bill of Puccini's buoyant comedy "Gianni Schicchi" and a sequel to it written in the 1990s by Michael Ching, "Buoso's Ghost."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Baltimore Concert Opera performs Rossini's "Semiramide" at 3 p.m. today at the Engineers Club, 11 W. Mount Vernon Place. Tickets are $27.50 to $71.50. Call 443-445-0226, or go to baltimoreconcertopera.com.

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