Semiramide, La Signora regale

This fascinating set explores music from 14 operas treating the eighth-century BC Assyrian queen whose life and deeds, as embellished by legend, have proved ripe for operatic treatment, not least in those works that depict her as the murderer of her husband, hint her son, whom she impersonates to hold the throne, and portray her as a fearless warrior. Metastasio’s 1729 libretto, set nearly 40 times in various revised forms (Vinci, Jommelli, Bernasconi, Traetta and Meyerbeer) largely avoids unsavoury traits but they turn up in Voltaire’s drama Sémiramis (1748) and operas derived from it (Bianchi, Borghi, Catel, Rossini and Garcia).
The disc spans a period of just over a century (1724 to 1828) and neatly traces the history of aria forms: da capo, dal segno, compound binary, two-part rondo and cantabile-caballetta structures are all represented. Bonitatibus’s voice can sound a bit fluttery and a loss of resonance is sometimes noticeable, especially in slow, lyrical passages, although breathiness sometimes acts as an expressive resource. But basically her sound is rich and imposing and is governed by discerning musicianship. She seems really to have immersed herself in the lore of her subject, for a regal bearing is everywhere in evidence as is an acute sense of drama. An engaging Baroque aria by Caldara (Vienna, 1724) signals the concentrated dramatic focus of Bonitatibus’s singing. She vents pent-up anguish in a highly-charged accompanied recitative and rage aria by Jommelli (Turin, 1742).
By contrast, Andrea Bernasconi’s ‘Ah, non è vano il pianto’ (Munich, 1765), sung with tender expression, is one of those beautifully serene mid-century arias with long-spanned melodies that unfolds oblivious to concerns about lenght. From Venice in the same year comes one of the most virtuosic of the bunch, Traetta’s brilliant ‘Il pastor, se torna aprile’, in which Bonitatibus’s voice tangles exhilaratingly with obbligato solo violin. Meyerbeer’s opera (Turin, 1819) demonstrates the endurance of Metastasio’s libretto, but it was heavily revised by Gaetano Rossi, who also authored the libretto set by Rossini. The Meyerbeer extract is a delightful set of variations with a bouncy refrain. Bonitatibus and the chorus have fun with it.
Among the Voltaire-based extracts, an especially theatrical moment comes from an ombra scene from La morte di Semiramide by one Sebastiano Nasolini (Naples, 1815), which begins ominously as Semiramide and the chorus witness the appearance of her late husband’s ghost, moves on to a cantabile in which Semiramide inspires courage in her frightened subjects, and concludes with a cabaletta that sounds as if it comes straight out of the Rosina-Figaro duet from Barbiere. Bonitatibus’s expansive account of Rossini’s touchstone ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’ holds its own against considerable competition. The instrumental selection include an intense, Cherubini-like, minor-key overture by Francesco Bianchi and a delightfully rhythmic dance number from Charles-Simon Catel’s Sémiramis that was apparently omitted from the recent complete recording. Both are excellently played, as are the arias, but the 18th-century arias suffer from the inclusion of the Baroque guitar in the continuo group.