- Dramma per musica in 2 acts
- Composer: Giacomo Meyerbeer
- Libretto: Pietro Metastasio (1729), adopted by Conte Lodovico Piossasco Feys, with later additions by Gaetano Rossi (1820)
- First performed: Teatro Regio, Turin, 3 February 1819
|SEMIRAMIDE, a Babylonian princess||Contralto||Carolina Bassi|
|IRCANO, a Scythian prince||Tenor||Claudio Bonoldi|
|SCITALCE, an Indian prince, Semiramide’s former lover||Mezzo||Adelaide Dalman-Naldi|
|MIRTEO, Semiramide’s brother||Bass||Raimondo Onesti|
|TAMIRI, princess of Bactria||Soprano||Teresa Cantarelli|
|SIBARI, also formerly in love with Semiramide||Tenor||Ludovico Bonoldi|
SETTING: Ancient Babylon, c. 850 BC
Giacomo Meyerbeer was the greatest opera composer of the mid-nineteenth century, both popular and critically acclaimed. He was one of the most cosmopolitan of composers: a German-born Jew, his earliest operas were produced in Germany and Italy, and his mature works were first staged in Paris then performed around the world – in Melbourne and Mexico, Manila and Mauritius, and in Calcutta.
With Robert le Diable (1830) and Les Huguenots (1836), the first two of six operas for Paris, Meyerbeer defined grand opera. His style – international, universal, and eclectic – united German science (harmony and orchestration), Italian bel canto singing, and French declamation and rhythm, forging the three national styles into an international language. He made opera a vehicle of ideas, rather than of emotions (Döhring), a platform for the expression of metaphysical and philosophical ideas (Brzoska). They are, moreover, deeply humanist: “tremendous rebuttals against ethnic, religious and racial bigotry. They champion history over myth, cosmopolitanism over nationalism, tolerance over bigotry, and balance individuality with community” (Pencak).
Verdi thought Meyerbeer a better musical dramatist than Mozart. Ravel preferred him to Wagner. Liszt thought that he inaugurated a new period of opera, and Hans von Bülow considered him ‘a man of genius’. Bizet and Giuseppe Mazzini compared him to Beethoven, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare. “Meyerbeer moralized the drama, making it an echo of the world and its eternal vital problem,” the Italian revolutionary wrote. “He is not a votary of the l’art pour l’art music; he is a prophet of the music with a mission, the music standing immediately below religion.” Goethe wanted Meyerbeer to set Faust to music, while Georges Sand and Dumas fils thought him the supreme lyrical dramatist.
But Meyerbeer’s reputation fell. The jealous Wagner, desperate to become the leading composer in Germany, fuelled by resentment at a former benefactor and by anti-Semitism, attacked Meyerbeer as ‘a Jew banker to whom it occurred to compose operas’, a tawdry purveyor of ‘a monstrous piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatic-libidinous, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-jaunty, autolyco-sentimental dramatic hotchpotch’. It became de rigueur for Wagnerians and adherents of the music of the future to dismiss Meyerbeer. With the rise of nationalism in the late 19th century, his cosmopolitanism was suspect. His operas, once performed worldwide, gradually disappeared from the repertoire after WWI, and were banned by the Nazis. Only in the last few decades has Meyerbeer’s reputation been reassessed; his major operas are slowly re-entering the repertoire.
Jakob Liebermann Beer was born to one of the wealthiest families in Prussia. One of his brothers mapped the Moon; another was a poet and playwright. Jakob showed remarkable talents for music at an early age. By the age of nine, the child was performing piano concerti in public; Leipzig papers predicted a glorious career for the prodigy. He studied with Clementi and Zelter, then with the Abbé Vogler, regarded as the German master of counterpoint; there Carl Maria von Weber, later famous as the composer of Der Freischütz, was the youth’s fellow pupil and close friend.
Meyerbeer’s first operas Jephtas Gelübde (1812) and Wirt und Gast (Alimelek) (1813) were unsuccessful; audiences found the music too academic, especially compared to the Italian operas then popular. (Weber, however, praised Wirt und Gast.) On the advice of Salieri, Meyerbeer went to Italy to learn to write for the human voice – as Handel, Hasse, and Gluck had done before him, and as the young Wagner hoped to do. Although Meyerbeer at first disdained Italian opera, seeing Tancredi in Venice opened his eyes to the delights of Rossini and bel canto.
“At that time all Italy was feasting in sweet ecstasy,” Meyerbeer wrote in a letter in 1856. “The whole country had finally found, it seems, a long hoped-for Paradise. All that was needed to complete their happiness was the music of Rossini. In spite of myself, I – like all the rest – was caught up in this gossamer web of sound. It was as if I were bewitched in a magic garden. I did not want to go into it, but I could not help myself. All my feelings, all my thoughts, were of Italy. After having lived there for a year, I felt as if I were a real Italian. I thought as an Italian, felt and experienced like an Italian. Obviously such a complete transformation of my inner life would have an effect upon my style of music. I did not want, as so many suppose, to imitate Rossini or to write in the Italian manner, but I had to compose in the style which my state of mind compelled me to adopt.” (quoted in Letellier, Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Critical Life and Iconography)
Meyerbeer’s first Italian opera, Romilda e Costanza, opened in Padua in July 1817. “The great merit of this opera is beyond dispute, in which an exceptional German control and instrumentation is combined with the sweetest, most delightful singing,” the Wiener Sammler enthused. “The famous Pacchiarotti and Calegari publicly expressed themselves of the opinion that they had not heard such music in Italy since Cimarosa and Paisiello.” (quoted in Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer)
Five more operas followed:
- Semiramide riconosciuta – Turin, February 1819
- Emma di Resburgo – Venice, June 1819
- Margherita d’Anjou – Milan (la Scala), November 1820
- L’Esule di Granata – Milan (La Scala), March 1822
- Il Crociato in Egitto – Venice (La Fenice), March 1824
These operas gained Meyerbeer his first international successes. Margherita was translated and performed throughout Europe; Crociato (regarded as late as 1844 as one of his three immortal operas) was performed as far away as Brazil. Weber reproached Meyerbeer for ceasing to be himself and imitating Rossini to attain an easy popularity – but Meyerbeer was not a servile imitator; he kept his science and genius for harmony and orchestration, but combined them with Italian form and melody.
“He understood that what the public wanted to find in his scores, what they admired in them, were grace and wit far more accessible to the vulgar than the treasures of science and genius which his first works contained,” Francis Roch (Revue genérale biographique, 1845) wrote. “Reserving for better and less fanatical times both the excellent traditions of the Abbé Vogler’s school and the gigantic inspirations that boiled in his thoughts; leaving aside what Weber admired and envied, he began to write in the Italian manner. This time, popular enthusiasm was not lacking.”
All six of the Italian operas have been recorded (L’Esule in a highlights version only). We will pass over Romilda, which is only available unofficially.
Semiramide riconosciuta was a vehicle for the contralto Carolina Bassi. It was enthusiastically received: “Meyerbeer’s Semiramide will be placed among the most beautiful scores of Italian music, even though he is not Italian,” the Gazetta di Milano (16 February 1819) wrote. “A true master of musical science, he has offered Italy the fruit of his studies, and his original and lively imagination.”
Because Bassi had the exclusive performing rights, however, the opera was only produced twice more in the nineteenth century: a revised version (now lost) in Bologna, 1820, and a run of 18 performances in Sinigaglia later that year. In the early 21st century, the opera was resurrected twice in the space of a year, both times recorded: Bad Wildbad, 2005, conducted by Richard Bonynge (Naxos), and the Martina Franca festival in 2006 (Dynamic).
The opera is undoubtedly a minor work, but an enjoyable one. The music is well crafted, but lacks the immediacy and originality of the mature Paris works. The story is a convoluted whirl of transvestism, disguise, and attempted poisonings in Babylon. The source was a Metastasio libretto already set by Vinci, Porpora, Hasse, Vivaldi, Gluck, and Salieri; Letellier calls the original “a convoluted dramatic intrigue unsuited to the style and practice of 1819”, but feels that the plot remained unsatisfactory even after it was simplified and shortened. Nevertheless, he argues (Introduction to the Dramatic Works) that Semiramide is a pivotal work: it looks back to the eighteenth century (Metastasio and opera seria); it explores form in response to Rossini (only 12 arias / duets, many extended); and combines a bel canto ethos with a Romantic sensibility of orchestral writing.
The overture in D was adopted from Romilda e Costanza.
Act I: The royal palace. Years before the story began, Semiramide’s lover Scitalce (under the name of Idreno) stabbed her and threw her body into the Nile; now she rules Babylon, posing as her son Nino. Three Oriental princes –Ircano, a Scythian (tenor); Scitalce, Semiramide’s former lover and assailant, from India (contralto); and Semiramide’s brother Mirteo, from Egypt – have come to woo the Bactrian princess Tamiri (seconda donna). Her father pays homage to Babylon, so ‘Nino’ must choose the husband. The impressive Introduzione, ‘Dall’Olimpo a noi scendete’ (No. 1), includes a brilliant march for the entry of the princes, and ends with an exciting stretta. It was, as Beghelli (Naxos) points out, a model for Rossini’s Semiramide, including an ominous thunderclap and the appearance of the prima donna at the start.
The Hanging Gardens. Scitalce reflects on the unhappy fate that led him to see Semiramide again, in a sweet cavatina in C, ‘Sperai su questa sponda’ (No. 2). The confrontation of the two former lovers, each suspicious, testing to see if it can indeed be the other, forms an attractive if florid duet, ‘Ella è la fiamma mia’ (No. 3). Scitalce asks Semiramide’s help to win Tamiri’s hand. His rivals Ircano and Mirteo plot to murder the favoured candidate.
An illuminated hall arranged for a wedding. The crafty Sibari poisons the cup Scitalce (if chosen) will drink from; the villain is in love with Semiramide and has designs on her throne. Ircano is also in a murderous mood; in a stormy aria, ‘Udrai di strage orribile’ (No. 4), he plots to stab his rival at the wedding. Sibrai restrains him; poison is a surer weapon. Semiramide’s wedding song, ‘Il piacer, la gioja scenda’ (No. 5), is the opera’s most famous number; a canzonetta con varizoni, it combines vocal display with melody to delightful effect. Letellier calls it “a brilliant dancing theme marked by catchy syncopations, varied choral harmonies, and the usual careful attention to instrumentation” – including a harp, newly introduced into the Italian theatre orchestra by Simone Mayr.
The finale, ‘In lucido cristallo’ (No. 6), is notable for its sense of scale, combining action with a multi-section structure. Scitalce refuses the (poisoned) wedding cup Tamiri offers him; let her choose a worthier man. She offers the cup to Ircano; knowing it is poisoned, he dashes it to the ground. The theme of Semiramide’s canzonetta, now in the minor, forlornly sounds the end of the party; a trio develops into an andantino sextet. Tamiri offers her hand to whoever kills Scitalce; Semiramide tries to restrain the furious princes, and takes the Indian under her protection. The act ends with an impressive stretta reale, ‘Ah balena, minaccia sdegnato’.
Act II: The palace’s ground floor apartments. Tamiri tells Mirteo she loves Scitalce despite her insult; her aria, ‘D’un genio che m’accendi’ (No. 7), is a naïve, Mozartean allegretto in A major. Sibari persuades Ircano to abduct Tamiri. Semiramide brings scitalce before her; revealing her true identity, she bares her breast, and gives him a sword to kill her. Their duettino, ‘Crudel! Morir mi vedi’ (No. 8), pleases.
The banks of the Euphrates. Ircano’s plot to kidnap Tamiri has been discovered; he and Mirteo fight with swords, while the Assyrian cavalry repel the Scythians. Fifteen years later, this would no doubt have made an impressive tableau with enormous choral forces; instead, it’s all in recitative. Ircano defies his enemies and vows revenge in the tenor’s big scene, ‘No, non son vinto ancora’ (No. 9). The treacherous Sibari tipped off Mirteo; he now tells him Scitalce is the man who attacked Semiramide years before. Mirteo vows to avenge his sister, ‘Ah, più soffrir non voglio’ (No.10).
The royal staterooms. Semiramide orders Ircano banished from her kingdom. Their duetto, ‘Parti: de’ cenni miei’ (No. 11), is one of the major numbers in the act. Scitalce rejects Semiramide’s offer of marriage; she frees him. Mirteo challenges him to combat. The scene ends with Scitalce’s rondo, ‘Non temere’ (No. 12).
The amphitheatre. Truth comes out: Sibari’s treachery is discovered; he strikes back by unmasking ‘Nino’ as a woman. She admits her deception, but she has ruled so wisely that the people demand she continue ruling over them as their queen. Semiramide’s rondò with chorus, ‘Se non nacqui al miglior sesso’ (No. 13) / ‘Soavi accenti’ (No. 14), a five-part final scena, gives the prima donna a final chance to display her virtuosity. It contains a lovely andantino, ‘Deh venite a questo seno’. The queen chooses Scitalce as her consort, while her brother Mirteo marries Tamiri. Sibari is banished.
Deborah Riedel (Semiramide), Filippo Adami (Ircano), Fiona James (Scitalce), Wojtek Gierlach (Mirteo), Olga Peretyatko (Tamiri), and Leonardo Silva (Sibari), with the Altensteig Rossini Choir and Würrtemberg Philarmonic Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. Bad Wildbad, Germany, 2005; Naxos.
Clara Polito (Semiramide), Aldo Caputo (Ircano), Eufemia Tufano (Scitalce), Federico Sacchi (Mirteo), Stefania Grasso (Tamiri), and Roberto De Biasio (Sibari), with the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia and Slovak Choir of Bratislava conducted by Rani Calderon. Martina Franca, Italy, 2006; Dynamic.
Marco Beghelli, essay accompanying Naxos CD.
Robert Ignatius Letellier, Meyerbeer Studies: A Series of Lectures, Essays, and Articles on the Life and Work of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005
Robert Ignatius Letellier, The Operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006
Robert Ignatius Letellier, An Introduction to the Dramatic Works of Giacomo Meyerbeer: Operas, Ballets, Cantatas, Plays, Ashgate, 2008
Robert Ignatius Letellier, Giacomo Meyerbeer: A Critical Life and Iconography, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018
Francis Roch, “Meyerbeer (Giacomo)”, Le Biographe universel : revue générale biographique et littéraire, ed. M.E. Pascallet, 1845
Sergio Segalini, Diable ou prophète ?: Meyerbeer, Beba, 2005