No one at the 1823 premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide—at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice—had any idea it would be the composer’s last opera for the Italian stage. After all, since the premiere of his opera Tancredi in the same theater ten years before, he had been on a long, glorious run, one that had solidified his position as the finest composer of his generation in Italy and one of the most famous men in the world. But in 1824, Rossini was lured to Paris by the musical directorship of the Théâtre des Italiens and encouraged to remain there by a contract and pension from Charles X. His final five operas premiered in the French capital.
Like Tancredi, Semiramide has a libretto by Gaetano Rossi based on a play by Voltaire. Voltaire’s dramas often put people into extraordinary situations that force them to make gut-wrenching decisions, and they inspired composers from his contemporary Rameau to Bernstein. His 1748 tragedy Sémiramis had everything: regicide, matricide, repeated supernatural intervention, a brush with incest, abundant political intrigue and conniving, and even a mad scene (which Rossini wrote, most unusually, for the bass)—all set against the exotic backdrop of Babylon and its Hanging Gardens.
At the heart of the story is one of the legendary figures of the ancient world, the Babylonian queen Semiramis. Like many semi-historical, semi-mythical figures, she really existed, but over the centuries, the very few verifiable facts about her have become encrusted with a variety of legends. Sammuramat was the wife of Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad V, who reigned from 824–810 BCE. When he died, their son, Adad-nirari III, was still a minor, so his mother held the throne for five years until he came of age. It was unheard of at the time for a woman to rule Assyria, and the fact that she preserved the kingdom so that her son could begin his reign over a strong, peaceful country assured her a place in history. Naturally, as her story was recounted through oral tradition over generations, it became embellished, sometimes outrageously. She acquired a divine connection to the goddess Ishtar and became both the founder of the city of Babylon and a great military leader. On the negative side, she was said to have killed her husband to seize the throne and to have committed incest with her son. The Greeks then changed her name to Semiramis, said that she took a handsome soldier into her bed every night and then had him killed in the morning, and claimed that her son eventually had her murdered because of the shame that her rampant immorality brought to the country. Each culture told her story a bit differently, but she was always a beautiful, strong, riveting character who inspired works of art.
Some of the dark elements of her legend made their way into Rossini’s version: Semiramide has conspired with Prince Assur to kill her husband 15 years before the opera begins, she almost marries her son before she realizes his identity, and she is killed by him in the end, albeit accidentally. Rossini responded to these dramatic and emotional situations with some of his most elaborate writing, both vocal and instrumental.
Since winning international fame with Tancredi, Rossini had written almost two dozen operas, nine of them for Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo. At the time, it was the most lavishly funded opera house in Europe, boasting an ensemble of some of the greatest singers in the world and a magnificent orchestra and chorus. It also produced a variety of non-Italian opera in addition to works by some of the best Italian composters of the day. Rossini soaked up all the influences he found there, writing operas that often-emphasized ensembles over arias, exploited instrumental colors to an unprecedented degree, and featured arias that, above all, fit the drama of the situation even if it meant moving away from traditional aria forms.
But Rossini’s Neapolitan operas were not as popular in the rest of Italy, which preferred his more traditional earlier operas, like Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. In writing Semiramide, Rossini and his librettist found a balance, returning to a Tancredi-like structure but filling it with the richer music Rossini had developed since. Aside from the expansive first scene and the two finales— which are of truly massive proportions—Semiramide is built around six arias and four duets. The arias are all of the older style, beginning with a slow cantabile section and ending with a fast cabaletta, specifically designed to show off the singer’s voice and technique. But it is the way Rossini imbues these simple forms with the extremely varied emotions of his characters—whether love, fury, or even insanity—that makes Semiramide such a grand opera.
As Rossini scholar Philip Gossett put it:
Rossini has not invented new structures in Semiramide, but he has filled the old ones with more elaborate music, creating a new structural vision, one embodying the sheer joy of musical expression. Wherever one looks, the same impression emerges. The Rossinian forms have grown granite-like in Semiramide, but within them the music breathes with vast proportions, complex and harmonically developed themes, monumental architecture.
The sheer grandeur of Semiramide is conveyed in several novel ways. The recitatives are no longer accompanied by harpsichord or fortepiano but by the orchestra, and Rossini goes far beyond the traditional rhythmic “plunk, plunk” cadence at the ends of phrases, often introducing various combinations of instruments to underscore the emotion. The chorus is used far more extensively than before, functioning more like a Greek chorus, commenting on the drama. It dominates the opening scene and two finales and appears in four of the six arias, heightening their sense of grandeur. In addition to the orchestra in the pit, Rossini employs a stage band at key moments, further increasing the dimensions of the work.
None of the operas Rossini wrote for Naples had an overture, but with Semiramide and his return to more traditional forms, he included one. And what an overture he wrote! With the exception of the overture he would compose six years later for Guillaume Tell, it is his longest and most musically ambitious.
Melodies to be heard later in the opera are developed almost symphonically and enriched by exuberant orchestration, beginning with the gorgeous horn quartet introducing music that will reappear in the first act finale. A little later, while the first violins play one of the main themes of the overture, Rossini sprinkles in brief 16th-note spurts, first from the oboe, then the flute, followed by clarinet, all within a single measure, later adding the piccolo to the decorative mix. It is almost more than a listener can consciously absorb but is typical of Rossini’s musical extravagance.
Rossini lavished the same opulence on the music he wrote for his singers, which is one reason the opera was neglected for decades. With arias and duets that seem to push the limits of vocal technique, earlier productions often struggled to do justice to all of the roles because Rossini expected his male singers to excel in the same heavily embellished vocal lines as sopranos and mezzos. Thanks to a new generation of singers, this is no longer the problem it once was, and audiences can enjoy what Gossett referred to as the opera’s “unabashed glorification of the power of music.”
It is said that Rossini, a famous gourmand, helped develop the sumptuous dish known as Tournedos Rossini. Julia Child commented that “a platter of Tournedos Rossini takes the filet steak about as far as it can go”—not surprising since her recipe calls for the filet to be fried in butter, placed on an artichoke heart (also cooked in butter), topped by a slice of foie gras (that has been basted in Madeira and beef stock), garnished with slices of truffles, then drizzled with a Madeira demi-glace. It is an appropriate tribute to the composer whose Semiramide took bel canto opera about as far as it could go.