Monthly Archives: July 2017

Starting Arsace’s rondeau “In si barbara” Days #5 – #6 of Semiramide Challenge 2017

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Starting Arsace’s rondeau “In si barbara” Days #5 – #6 of Semiramide Challenge 2017

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Yesterday was a kind of a nitty gritty day: coloratura learning is a lonely task, its just your butt at that piano, playing harmonies and learning scales. Unlike some of the thru composed music of later decades, hearing your coloratura passages in your head and understanding the scale is super important, but it goes hand in hand with singing those scales and intricate patterns over and over; and then when you really know it (even before) it needs to have emotion or meaning behind it.

I had a inward “gulp” moment (like oh my gosh what did I get myself into) a few days ago when I saw this amazing video of Marilyn Horne singing
“In si barbara” in a concert in Versailles, dated 1985. Its a filn shot as if it were a concert being viewed by Rossini himself, a fabulous fantasy costumed production, check it out:

So I searched on youtube with the words “In si barbara” and Rossini, and this is the only thing that came up. No excerpts of this being done as a solo piece, concert piece, etc… from what I have seen, this is probably the version by which this aria can really be measured;  she is hands down amazing; this clip my friends is definitely awe inspiring.

I started yesterday vocalizing the cavatina of this piece super slowly, as well as tackling the bridge section (a pre cabaletta with triplet figures), which happens before the real fireworks begin. The cabaletta has a male chorus like so many of these Rossini rondeaus, where there is sword waving, egging on and general great fun. The scales are not overly hard, but doing them at great speed could be difficult. I’m not there yet with it.  Since I want to sing it as a concert piece this fall, I discovered that the old Max Spicker Alto and Soprano aria book (edited by Pattelsons in NYC in the 1980’s, and which seems to be out of print) conveniently has this very same rondeau with the male chorus written out and ready for a solo concert with the pianist! I photocopied it today…

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I will be checking out Jennifer Laramore’s recorded version of this aria this week without fail and see what she does, her ornamentation choices as well as tempos. For now I’m plugging away at this aria slowly but surely. Today (day #6), I did not sit at the piano, but I did review and look at the score during a long subway ride to Brooklyn; I’ve gone thru and can hear in my head the first act, including the recitatives (minus the quintet). I will now chip away at the second act, as I come into my second week of the Semiramide challenge 2017.  I still have the second act duet with the soprano to contend with.  I already have a coaching set up on August 9th and August 11th.

Found this neat “deco” orientalist painting of our favorite sultry and “evil like” sex kitten. If I was to update this opera to the present, it would have to be to one of those 1980’s night time soap operas, like Falcon Crest or Dynasty. Joan Collins would of made a fabulous Queen Semiramide in my opinion…

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Semiramide Challenge 2017 Day #4, recitative before “Serbami ognor”, interesting…

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Semiramide Challenge 2017 Day #4, recitative before “Serbami ognor”, interesting…

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Rossini leaves no stone unturned in Semiramide in terms of human interaction, emotional states; shades of unspoken are throughout the score.  The recitatives that I have sung thru so far are all studied little gems of characterization and theater. I have never participated or studied his opera seria from Rossini’s Neopolitan years and I’m seriously stunned now that I’m examining Semiramide; These have nothing to do with Barbiere, Cenerentola or Italiana in Algeri. They have the same degree of psychological depth of recitatives by Handel, Mozart and Verdi. I will need to conjure a real theatrical accent and would have to have a pretty great and accomplished conductor that can truly accompany and bring these recits to life.

I have sung  the first act duet between Arsace and Semiramide “Serbami ognor” a few times in concerts these past two years, but had never bothered to look at the recitative that precedes this duet. Semiramide (in the book “History thru the Opera Glass” by George Jellinek, the author cites that tradition has it she was the creator of the famous Babylonian Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world) is a character I’m still trying to figure out; what is certain is that she is an anti heroine: complicated, sexy, very feminine, capable of murder and with a thirst for power, but also vulnerable (she allows herself to fall in love) she becomes remorseful and  horrified at the Oedipeal situation she finds herself in when we get to the second act. Can I say she is an evil sex kitten with a heart? Arsace can’t bring himself to kill her when he reveals that he is her son.  There must of been something redeemable about her… I need to keep taking myself thru this libretto a bit more, as well as Rossini’s musicalization to figure it out.

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Amazing cat suit outfit for Semiramide

Today I took myself thru this interesting recitative between Arsace and Semiramide “Mitrane, e che rechi?” right before duet No. 8; I read it first at the piano and saw what seemed to be quirky almost awkward sudden changes in harmony, but within a framework of very sparse notes (“la più bella speranza lusingava il mio cor, ma…). But in reading the translation, Rossini perfectly emulates the misunderstanding as well as  word ques that erroneosly “get lost in translation” between the two characters; she has just received the missive from the oracle saying that all will be righted in the kingdom when Arsace marries (she assumes she is the bride alluded by the oracle); Arsace has come to ask for Azema’s hand in marriage and misunderstands that the Queen is open to agreeing to this marriage. I need to add that both Semiramide and Arsace each have a letter reading scene with underneath orchestral tremolos. Rossini used every device in the book to wring out every ounce of drama, to what I consider thrilling results.

Arsace’s statements and responses need to be sung with a lot of intention, as well as with a touche of naivete. He is truly an honest young man, and very much in earnest, but is  a little clueless and doesn’t have an instinct for subterfuge.   Some of the lines are filled with pride, then suddenly changes to hope, anxiety, and love; he opens his heart to Semiramide in this scene, and she mistakes his intentions…this section needs to come off very natural.  Since its accompanied by the orchestra, it is super rigorous at the same time…so, not really easy to pull off.  This recit section has lots of interesting stuff. It of course preludes one of the better known duets from the opera. I already started scribbling the different attitudes and emotional content of Arsace’s lines in this section. Actually, Rossini in his harmonies tells me what Arsace is feeling; its all there on the page.

Arsace – You summoned me, Queen, and I have hastened to come. How I have yearned for this sweet moment! The finest of hopes enticed my heart. But…

Semiramide – (sweetly) Why do you stop?

Arsace – I am told that, generous as you are, you have at last granted Assyria its wish, that today you will name a successor…

Semiramide – Go on.

Arsace – Assur, the haughty man, thinks he will be king, Azema’s hand will earn him a throne. I would die for you, but I will not serve him.

Semiramide – He shall not have Azema.

Arsace – (joyfully) He won’t?

Semiramide – I am aware of his plans.

Arsace – Ah! Then you know him?

Semiramide – And I will punish him.

Arsace – (reticently) If only you knew this well also Arsace’s heart!

Semiramide – (tenderly) I know that it is faithful and virtuous.

Arsace – But I am only a warrior…

Semiramide – And a warrior, for this empire, is the greatest support… and you… are already… (to herself) Patience, my heart.

(Libretto from the recording conducted by Alberto Zedda, edited by Dynamic CD’s)

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Semiramide 30 day Challenge Day 3 Arsace Assur duet “Bella imago…”

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I have not sung many opera scenes with true basses.  The last I did that comes to memory is the duet between Laura and Alvise in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.  There are more common encounters in baroque opera between these two voice types, as well as also in a couple of Bach cantatas that I have sung.  There are occasions in which the mezzo interacts with the bass in recitative passages, but not often in large presentational duet like the one in Semiramide.

The scene with Arsace and Assur in Act I of Semiramide begins with Arsace’s recit  “…e questo Assur chi’io già detesto”.  It would be a mistake to sum this scene as a big testosterone sable rattling scene. Its divided in four sections sections, and contains  bridge section to mirror the power struggle and conflict (with what I call “emotional close ups”) between the two characters: a young dashing somewhat lovelorn general and a mature general that has been working many years to attain absolute power in ancient Babylon.

American bass Samuel Ramey as Assur in Rossini’s Semiramide

No. 5 Scena and duetto Arsace and Assur

Recitative “…e questo Assur chio gia detesto” “E dunque vero? audace”

Maestoso allegretto giusto: “Bella imago degli Dei”

Andante: “D’un tenero amore”

Allegro vivace: “Io tremar?”

A tempo:  “Va superbo, in quella Reggia”

A cut version could last 7 plus minutes. The uncut performance of the duet from the 80’s with Horne and Ramey  in London clocked in at 11’30, its truly a superb version:

Arsace Assur Duet from Semiramide with Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey live performance London

The recit exposes the power struggle and rivalry between the two characters; Arsace ends his statement with scale with possible cadenza and begins the A section (Maestoso allegreto giusto) which then returns at the A tempo at the end of the scena. The Decca London 1965 recording cuts out the  Andante section, which gives a great platform to show almost a soft side for Assur, wonderful expressive singing for Arsace, as well as beautiful cadenza in which both characters sing together, its a great moment. The “io tremar” of the Allegro vivace changes the mood in an aggressive way to bring us back to the A section, which in the uncut version repeats; its in this section that the ornaments are done.  Musically and dramatically the scena is a mini opera, except that the conflict remains to be resolved (with deadly force) later on in the opera.

Its a big chunk of music. In the Kalmus score its 18 pages for this scena…for now I will learn the return of the A section come scritto  (Horne re writes the passages leading to the end of this first exposition). It definitely needs a high note, as indicated by Rossini by the two fermatas. Not too worried getting this A section in my voice, as well as the gorgeous introspective cantilena section.  The grouping of the figures in the last part of the duet are super trumpet like in character. I sung thru it a couple of times today. Tomorrow I will work on the possible ornaments and cadenzas for the duet.  None are indicated in the Ricci cadenza book. After that, I’m moving on to the Act II cavatina of “In si barbara”. I’m skipping over the Act I finale quintet for now.

I will sing thru a big chunk of this role in a small concert on September 6th in NYC so I can try all this out for size. Still working on that August 19th deadline to learn every note and every word! Maybe not every ornament and cadenza, but yes to be able to read the score from top to bottom.

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Italian mezzo soprano Lucia Valentini-Terrani as Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide

My “Semiramide” Summer 2017 Challenge Day 2

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As I take myself thru the paces of learning Arsace, something I have been wanting to do for many years now, I’m getting into a good grove.  Yesterday I reviewed the recits I had learned the day before, as well as making more inroads into my duet with Assur, which is extensive.  I found it helpful to make a road map of what Act 1 looks like for Arsace, and that way lay out clear goals by day of what to learn and review.

ACT I – Role of Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide

No. 4 Recitativo:  “Ecomi al fine in Babilonia”

Aria:  “Ah, quel giorno”

Recitativo:  “Ministri”

No. 5 Scena and duet with Assur

“Bel imago”

Recitativo after Semiramide’s  Bel raggio “Al tuo comando”

No. 8 duet “Serbami ognor”

No. 10 Quintet

I’m hampered by not having a cut sheet, at this point I’m learning all the notes and passages.  Without really knowing the overall architecture of the opera, it already reads to me as a masterpiece. The recitatives are very dramatic and theatrical; Rossini exposes the characters sometimes rapidly changing emotions and thoughts with sudden harmonic changes to allude to different emotional states. In this way it reminds of Handel’s craft in his opera Alcina.

Rossini is always looking for coloratura passages that highlight the characters personality, that follow them as a sort of leimotif; I will find some examples and post.

The recitative “Ecomi al fine” is a four page recitative that is preceded by a mini overture like prelude, that paints the sumptuous and mystery of the Babilonian temple that Arsace has gone for his secret appointment with the temple priests.  A recent Naxos recording omits the recitative. So far Decca London Marilyn Horne disc with Sutherland and the live video on youtube with Lucia Valentini-Terrani are my favorite versions of this accompanied recitativo.  This recit introduces the character and important information about the drama, in my opinion its a big mistake to cut it from the performance.

So on day 2, I have gone thru the recitatives Ecomi al fine; Ministri; recitative preceding duet with Assur E questo Assur, ch’io gia lo detesto; duet with Assur has several sections, I have gone over the first two expositions. Uncut this duet could last 15 minutes at least.  It seems like Rossini builds his scenas like Neoclassical architecture; I want to reach out to my friends at the Rossini Gesellschaft about this comparison!

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The first Assur I ever heard was American bass Samuel Ramey, at MET production in the 90’s

I found on youtube channel Addio bel passato has lovingly put Stigniani’s LP recital on line, and the Arsace aria that I fell in love (together with the recitative excerpted) can be heard.

Ebe Stigniani “Ah quel giorno” from Rossini’s Semiramide, conducted by Antonino Votto

On this current hearing (after 20 years!) the tempo is slow to my modern ear and coloratura slightly labored.  She is very spare on the chest notes.  The album is dated 1953, so she had already clocked in several decades of singing professionally.  There is still a bright and stentorian quality to the upper register, but the the bel canto contraltina ease is not there in this recording. Memory can play tricks, and I have plans to listen to the LP on YouTube.

On to day 3! I will be going over sections of the first act with my pianist, so more later.

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“Semiramide” Summer Challenge 2017

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Today I started my own 30 day challenge to learn all the notes (every melisma and every word!) of the role of Arsace from Rossini’s opera sería masterpiece, “Semiramide”.  I spiral bounded my old Kalmus score which I have owned for many years. The Ricordi critical edition is available, but I’m putting off getting it until all notes and cadenzas are off the page.


Today I learned the first three recitatives as well as the A section of the Arsace/ Assur duet, a confrontation of rivals.

Many years ago I borrowed a long play vinyl of an Italian mezzo active in the 1930’s named Ebe Stignani.  I managed to record it on a tape cassette and started listening. Side A was all light bel canto arias sung with great freshness and youthful tone. On side B Ms. Stignani transformed herself into a spinto/dramatic mezzo with arias from Samson et Delilah arias (sung in Italian of course), the letter aria from Werther as well as the meaty arias from Il Trovatore. On side A the aria “Ah quel giorno” from Rossini’s Semiramide caught my attention. I ordered the whole score (only way for me to excerpt  this aria back then) and learned it pretty much by ear.  I surprised my teacher Richard Torigi a bit when I brought it in, and he even said it wasn’t half bad…and so this aria sung by the character of  Arsace became my first stab ever at music by who was to become my favorite composer, Gioachino Rossini.


The next recording of this aria I started listening to was in one of Marilyn Horne’s Decca London recital albums.  The aria became a sort of vocalise for me before auditions and concert; I never sang it in public until last year actually, at a couple of auditions. The duet with the character of Semiramide  “Serbami ognor” I also started performing it publicly just this past year as part of concert called “Amor en Travesti”, with soprano Gloria Londoño at the Auditorio Nacional de España in Madrid.

One of my operatic idols (flawed, human but divine nonetheless) is Italian mezzo Lucia Valentini-Terrani. I love her live and emotionally connected rendition of the aria on YouTube. The beginning recitative section of Arsace’s first aria is also stunning.

Lucia Valentini Terrani live concert Ecomi al fine…Ah, quel giorno from Rossini’s Semiramide

More on Arsace tomorrow!