Semiramide, La Signora regale

Semiramide La Signora Regale is an amazing achievement: two brilliantly conceived discs which are revelatory in the recording of rare repertoire and which showcase the dazzling mastery of Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus. The collection of 15 tracks is inspired by the 9th-century BC Syrian queen Semiramis, a woman (according to Bonitatibus) who was far ahead of her time and who has fascinated historians, artists, and composers for centuries.
Anna Bonitatibus has assembled arias by 18th and 19th-century composers and librettists, each of which not only tells a part of the heroine’s story, but also serves as a record of the Baroque and bel canto opera styles. Arranged chronologically with the Handel as a concluding bonus track, the recital captures Semiramide’s kaleidoscopic personality—wife, widow, mother, warrior—as well as the versatility, glorious richness, and agility of Bonitatibus’s voice.
Hers is a nubile instrument with a creamy timbre, even throughout its range, with an expressively veiled lower register and a brilliant upper one. She displays a tasteful flair for ornamentation—often fearless, but always organic to the aria, and she has a masterful way of illuminating words with color and nuance. Moreover, she is capable of imbuing the music with deeply felt emotions.
A 17th and 18th-century specialist, Federico Ferri conducts the Baroque ensemble Accademia degli Astrusi, with assurance and sensitivity to phrasing and dynamics. The strings are particularly fine, and the use of period instruments such as the harpsichord, archlute, and Baroque guitar add authenticity. La Stagione Armonica, under the direction of chorus master Sergio Balestracci, provides excellent vocal support.
The comprehensive booklet which accompanies the recital is a work of art in itself! It reflects Bonitatibus’s four years of research and the contributions of several musicologists and research libraries which she consulted. Written in four languages, these attractively packaged materials recount the historical facts and myths about Semiramide as well as the musical and dramatic contexts of the compositions, all illustrated with art, poetry, and lavishly reproduced photographs. The liner notes by Bonitatibus and Davide Verga are informative, detailed, and instructive. The texts appear in Italian and English, and performance dates, theater venues, and original interpreters are all documented, taking the art of CD booklets to a new high.
The first disc begins with “Povera navicella” from the 1725 opera Semiramide in Ascalona by Antonio Caldara, in which the fragile bark is a metaphor for the precarious choice the teenaged Semiramide must make between suitors. Bontitatibus tosses off the furioso passage, which describes the storm’s ferocity, with fearless aplomb. In “Vanne fido e al mesto regno” from Antonio Porpora’s 1724 opera Semiramide dell’Assiria , the mezzo sings with a warm passion and self-possessed authority about her warrior exploits and demonstrates her inventive use of ornamentation.
Nicola Jommelli’s Semiramis Riconosciuta from 1741 follows with the expressive recitative “Barbaro, non dolerti,” and the fireworks of “Tradita sprezzata,” in which Bonitatibus conveys the widowed queen’s hidden anger and hurt at her encounter with her first love, Scitalce, with a blend of terrible fury and painful vulnerability. This segues into another scena concerning Semiramide’s disguised love for Scitalce, “Ah non è vano il pianto,” from Andrea Bernasconi’s 1765 Semiramide . Bonitatibus’s delivery is meltingly limpid and mournful, complete with lovely organically implemented fioratura.
This lament is followed by the contrasting song of spring, “Il pastor se torna aprile” from Tommaso Traetta’s 1765 Semiramide, in which nature mirrors the queen’s reborn hopes for love. The expressive orchestral introduction and violin obbligato conjure up Semiramide’s mythic element as “the daughter of air.” The mezzo’s timbre is buttery and bursting with color, and she shapes the line with luxuriantly florid phrasing. The first disc ends with an aria by the sadly underperformed genius Giovanni Paisiello, from his 1772 La Semiramide in Villa . “Serbo in seno il cor piagato” is a timeless melody about heartbreak sung with wrenching pathos and mesmerizing legato.
The second disc moves into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, setting the mood with the Sinfonia from Francesco Bianchi’s La Vendetta di Nino (1790), which with its darker harmonics and emotions tells the tale of Semiramide being haunted by her husband Nino’s ghost. The tormented queen again appears in two operas titled La Morte di Semiramide . In the first aria with its dazzling cabaletta and coda, “Figlio diletto e caro” from Giovan Battista Borghi’s 1791 score, Semiramide unwittingly plans to marry her disguised son Arsace. In Sebastiano Nasolini’s 1792 treatment of the same material, Bonitatibus gets to play the entire haunting scene with assistance from Vincenzo Di Donato, Gian-Luca Zoccatelli, and the chorus, and the mezzo demonstrates her searing dramatic powers, stabbing the heart with phrases such as “il ciel sdegnato.”
The intensity of that scene makes way for the 1802 “Danse No. 2” from Charles-Simon Catel’s Semiramis, which ushers in Meyerbeer’s 1819 grand opera Semiramide. The recitative and canzonetta “Piu no si tardi” … “Il piacer, la gioia scenda” depict the queen entertaining her guests at a magnificent banquet, while she conceals her anxiety about Scitalce’s marriage plans. The liquid harp interlude is a particularly beautiful touch, and Meyerbeer’s music allows Bonitatibus to probe the more dramatic and regal aspects of her voice.
Meyerbeer makes an admirable musical entry into the best-known aria on the disc, Rossini’s “Bel raggio lusinghier” from his 1823 Semiramide. But Bonitatibus is not content with giving us the generally performed version. Instead, with the help of musicologist Philip Gossett, who reconstructed the orchestration of the final section, she has researched and chosen to perform the composer’s first version of the aria from the autograph manuscript. In this cavatina and cabaletta, Semiramide rejoices over the return of her son Arsace with soaring cadences of vocal virtuosity.
The final selection is from Manuel GarcÌa’s 1829 Semiramis , the intense recitative “Già il perfido discese” followed by the prayer of remorse and redeeming maternal love, “Al mio pregar t’arrendi.” The composer’s use of only winds for the orchestration of the prayer lends immediacy to the queen’s forlorn plea and creates a powerful and radiant finale to the recital.
Bonitatibus grants an encore, singing “Fuggi degli occhi miei” from Handel’s and Leonardo Vinci’s musical pastiche Semiramide Riconosciuta —one more testament to the far-reaching artistic appeal of the heroine.
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi has engineered the discs with great musicality and sensitivity. The sound is forwardly placed, the orchestra has an animated clarity, and the voices of mezzo and chorus are preserved in their lustrous beauty.
This is a landmark recording in musicological, vocal, and overall artistic terms. Anna Bonitatibus, who is much appreciated abroad, but who regrettably has appeared in North America only occasionally, confirms her place among the great interpreters of this repertoire.