Royal Opera House ★★★☆☆
ROSSINI wrote the cruelly demanding title role of Semiramide for his vocally threadbare wife, and then watched as she crashed her way through the 1823 premiere and got booed off the stage.
No such fate awaits mezzo Joyce DiDonato, thank heaven, whose vocal and dramatic skills are so jaw-dropping as to leave one incredulous. She goes head-to-head with Rossini, and wins, hands down.
You want the coloratura speedier? She does it twice as fast as possible. You want high notes? She goes higher than you can believe. You want pathos, vulnerability, and guilt on a grand scale? She draws you in, and then wrenches your heart right out of your ribcage with her sex-drenched, magnetic portrayal of the regicidal cougar of the title. If anything confirms her status as the prima diva assoluta of the world of bel canto, then this is it.
Her performance is the high point of an otherwise so-so evening. Some of the other singing — especially from Daniela Barcellona as her fiancé Arsace, and Lowrence Brownlee as the Indian suitor Idreno — is beautifully secure, but lacking in DiDonato’s emotional zhuzh. Conductor Antonio Pappano, normally a wizard in the pit, doesn’t quite get to grips with the dramatic through-line of the four-hour score either.
The opera tells the story of a guilt-ridden queen who, having murdered her husband fifteen years previously, now has to thwart the blackmail of her co-conspirator in order to marry a dashing young warrior (who, wouldn’t you just know it?) turns out to be her son.
Director David Alden sets the action in a stylized contemporary version of a Middle Eastern dictatorship, and although he tells the story with clarity, his static use of the chorus, and his insistence on the singers using distracting and fiddly props (a riding crop, a cigarette, a globe, an axe) in their big scenes, keeps the dramatic temperature low.
Apart, that is, from when Joyce DiDonato comes on stage. Rossini would be proud.