Semiramide, La Signora regale

Semiramis, or Semiramide as rendered in Italian, was at least in part a legendary female ruler of the ancient Assyrian Empire. That there was an actual Queen Semiramis who ruled in the time around 800 BC is also known to historians, but the legend far surpasses any possible achievements of the real queen. As well as being a rare female ruler in a male-dominated era, she is noted for splendid victories in war and building imposing edifices, especially in Babylon, throughout the area in which she ruled. In the legends of the region she is also known for some more unsavory things, including conniving to get the throne for her son. All of this is explained in the fascinating booklet of this two-CD set from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi. It reads like a Master’s thesis in Ancient History, although probably better written and with better illustrations.
Real, mythical, or a mixture of both, Semiramis has intrigued and inspired writers since the early Greeks, and more to the point, opera librettists for the last 300-plus years. In this set, Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus, along with early music ensemble Academia degli Astrusi and choral group La Stagione Armonica, gives us a sampling of the music written for the legendary queen, ranging from Nicola Porpora’s opera Semiramide, Regina dell’ Assiria of 1724, to the most recent aria performed here, composed by Manuel Garcia—Spanish tenor, voice teacher, sire of the famous Garcia clan, and apparently composer as well—from his opera Semiramis in 1828. In between this roughly 100-year span are samplings from Semiramis-themed operas composed by Caldara, Jommelli, Handel, Paisiello, Meyerbeer, and Rossini, as well as several other even more obscure musicians. The Handel aria is actually taken from a pastiche by Leonardo Vinci. More than a few of the items are receiving their world premiere recordings here, not because they are bad music, but because they come from such obscure operas that it has never occurred to anyone to revive them. In fact, most of the music chosen by Bonitatibus and musical director Federico Ferri is quite excellent and certainly deserves a hearing.
I first encountered early music specialist Bonitatibus when she sang Didone in Francesco Cavalli’s opera of the same title. But, of course, the Italians hadn’t invented the aria yet in Cavalli’s day, so Bonitatibus was given little opportunity to display her singing talents in that role. I am here to report the lady can sing, not only the early music pieces of Handel’s era, but also the later bel canto style represented here by Rossini, Garcia, and Meyerbeer. Bonitatibus displays excellent technique, easy flexibility, and the ability to tastefully ornament the line. Most of the arias are bravura, it might have been nice to have a slow song or two; Semiramis must have had something to lament about in 300 years of operas. Bonitatibus does not sing the early pieces with a “white” voice, but colors everything she sings. She employs a rapid vibrato that may or not be to everyone’s taste, but she uses it pretty gloriously here. The Academia degli Astrusi provides three instrumental numbers spread over the two discs, two opera preludes and a dance, also following the thematic program and providing welcome interludes from the singing. Not only texts and translations are provided, but the context of each aria within its opera is also explained. Musically, this is a fine set and the booklet is first-class. Highly recommended.