Joyce DiDonato as Semiramide and Daniela Barcellona as Arsace in Semiramide (ROH)
Daniela Barcellona as Arsace and Joyce DiDonato as Semiramide in Semiramide (ROH)
© Bill Cooper

How do you solve a problem like Rossini's epic trawl through Voltaire's play? How do you catch a sprawling opera seria and pin it down? The solutions in the Royal Opera's new account of Semiramide are (a) cut an hour out of it, (b) give it a prestige production and (c) throw in a big star.

It still goes on a bit.

Way, way back many centuries ago in Assyria, the seer and high priest Oroe warned the Babylonians that there would be blood… No, let's cut to the chase. 15 years before curtain up, Semiramide murdered her husband, Nino. Their infant son escaped, was raised unaware of his origins and now returns to court as the handsome warrior Arsace. Oedipal dangers beckon and guilt must be punished.

Semiramide is a rare visitor to the opera house, and hand on heart I doubt we'd hear it at all were it not for the virtuoso writing Rossini devoted to his title character. The role is a godsend for any lyric soprano or, as here with the stellar Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano. Her first act duet of misunderstanding with Arsace (a travesti role) is an absolute stonker, with death-defying runs and vocal body-popping for both women.

Daniela Barcellona sang Arsace at a BBC Prom last summer, as well as in Munich where this David Alden production was first seen last February, and while she lacks DiDonato's ability to float a note on the breeze, her slightly bigger voice within the same mezzo Fach suits the part. Between them the two divas divvied up the opera's spoils.

'Fire and definition'

It's an inert piece for much of its running time, and Alden's determinedly chiaroscuro staging can do little to bring it to life. Even with those cuts the first half's 110-minute duration ticks by in ultra-real time, Michael Bauer's dim lighting challenging us to stay focused as an intermittently arresting score plays out in a staging more static than some concert performances.

Alden does a commendable job of teasing out a vestige of relevance, however, with the action updated to some tinpot East European/southwest Asian state in the recent past, and designer Paul Steinberg's neo-Soviet sets are made to shift and reconfigure with a certain sepia allure. Yet even this experienced team struggles to create much by way of theatrical élan. Characters behave oddly with little sense of consistency or hinterland, and the climactic scene in Nino's tomb is carelessly staged.

After an uncharacteristically humdrum account of the first act, music director Antonio Pappano brought fire and definition to Act Two (which undeniably has more dramatic interest than its forerunner) and elicited some brilliant precision from the ROH Orchestra. The chorus, too, shone, and there were splendid supporting performances by members of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee was in scintillating voice as the Indian Prince Idreno, likewise Bálint Szabó as Oroe, the smart cookie who sees the future, but unfortunately Michele Pertusi as the baleful Assur was clearly out of sorts before the interval and handed the role to the attractive-toned if light-timbred Mirco Palazzi thereafter.

It was a privilege to witness this rare presentation of some lesser Rossini, but while Alden's staging was streets ahead of the Royal Opera's recent Guillaume Tell, this opera is an apple that Rossini's bolt sadly missed.

Semiramide runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 16 December.