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.
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:
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.