27 August, 2011

Review: Semiramide by a first time opera-goer

By Órla Murray

My first opera experience was a four hour and twenty minute baptism of fire, with Vlaamse Opera's production Rossini’s Semiramide severely testing both my clapping etiquette and endurance. Having never before seen an opera, and having a variety of expectations – it would be incomprehensible; I would become bored; the audience would be old and posh – I was suitably nervous about attending. Although it did feel a little like the opening of an Edith Wharton novel (being at the opera to see and be seen), the performance itself was so phenomenally beautiful and engaging, that Semiramide retained my attention and managed to evoke a potent emotional response.

With strong overtones of Sophoclean tragedy and Shakespearean level plot twists, accompanied by melodramatic music, my expectations that the musical talent and plot would be exceptional, were heartily met. An astonishingly powerful level of singing told the musical story well with each piece ebbing and flowing appropriately, catching the audience up in its relaxing and elegant embrace. It did all become a tad too soporific at certain points, however, as I felt my attention drifting and eyelids drooping in a content and relaxed state.

This may have been more so due to my attending the performance straight after an 8-hour shift at work rather than a comment on it as a performance. It thankfully transpired that I enjoyed the performance despite its length and my tiredness; in my appreciative amateur opinion the event was most certainly worth setting time aside for, as I thoroughly enjoyed my night and felt someone cleansed afterwards.

The performance was staged to perfection with exquisitely painted scenery and set from Nigel Lowery, both of which had a versatility and storyline all of their own. The costumes and lighting were subtly effective; bathing the golden furniture in green hues, and set on a hugely expansive stage, making things seem simultaneously expensive and mouldy. This captured the decaying decadence of the story’s Babylonian backdrop, which hung ominously over the delicately dressed lead characters. The addition of what appeared to be a real fire roaring in a fireplace added that little bit extra to the final scene, proving that at this level of opera no holds are barred when providing the perfect atmosphere for the outstanding music.

However, whilst the setting proved a wonderful match for the sublime music and singing, conducted by Alberto Zedda, the directing and most of the supporting chorus cast unfortunately seemed dramatically out of their depth. The chorus made very visible mistakes throughout the performance, with their movement pieces seeming crowded and messy which ultimately distracted from the main action and singing.  Additionally, there were moments when the performance seemed to rely too heavily on the power of the music, when in fact the huge stage and dramatic staging dwarfed the singers onstage, making it seem ill thought out rather than allegorically important as it might have been intended. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my first night at the opera, but would like to see a production which ensures its dramatic aspects match the musical elements, which unfortunately was not always the case here. As a piece of beautiful performance, both musically and visually, it is well worth the lengthy experience, with any storyline or dramatic elements being mere bonuses to the aural treat that is Semiramide.

Thursday 25 and Saturday 27 August, 6pm
Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12 August – 4 September. Browse and book online at eif.co.uk or call 0131 473 2000.


Anonymous said...

Whilst I am glad this operatic first timer enjoyed this show I am afraid I don’t think this reviewer has seen a GOOD production of any opera to judge from this review.
What a sad critique – but then its in line with the paucity of ideas on show from the production’s director. This show was POOR! On Saturday night the audience was not enthralled and applauded very little during the show. The singing was not in line with an International Festival!
To think that the EIF used to import the GREATS of international opera and now we have this 3rd rate parochial production from Belgium. Slow tempi, average singing, hackneyed period acting combined with bad 20 year old Richard Jones styled recycled semaphore signalling, distracting and inconsequential business during numbers and a distinct lack of stagecraft from the director! The lighting lit the cut out scenery and not the singers, who were often left in the dark – I cannot believe that they couldn't find themselves in the positions they rehearsed!
Jonathan Mills should resign having imported this rubbish to the once great EIF.

Anonymous said...

To think the at the EIF used to import the GREATS of international opera and now we have this 3rd rate parochial production from Belgium. Slow tempi, average singing, hackneyed period acting combined with bad 20 year old Richard Jones recycled semaphore signalling, distracting and inconsequential business during numbers and a distinct lack of stagecraft from the director!

Anonymous said...

Interesting to note that the EIF have now censored my criticism of this poor production! So much for free speech or equality in audience views!!

Edinburgh International Festival Blog said...

Dear Anonymous,

We moderate our blog comments regularly and are of course happy to publish responses from across the spectrum of audience opinion, so thank you for posting.

The Edinburgh International Festival strives to bring the best international artists to the city each year and the 2011 programme has received a large amount of positive feedback from audiences and critics alike.

Semiramide received a range of reviews from 5 stars to 2 stars from established critics in the press. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Thank you for getting in touch and we hope you enjoy your next Festival performance.

Anonymous said...

It may have “stars” , but here are some quotes from those very reviews and more!

1.direction was unimaginative – The Guardian
2.green flashy lights, Halloween ghosts and hapless doppelgangers were plain naff.- The Guardian
3.Nigel Lowery’s.... approach was scarcely inspired and often clichéd – The Telegraph
4.Luxury casting is beyond the grasp of Antwerp’s Vlaamse Opera - The Telegraph
5.production was as ineffective and ridiculous as the extravagant sets and costumes - The Scotsman
6.direction veered from the damned obvious to the clumsily enigmatic - The Scotsman
7.The singing was as uneven and unimpressive as the lacklustre - The Scotsman
8.None of the staging or sets served the drama – The Scotsman
9.The question must be asked as to why this production was brought in from Antwerp when we have a company capable of staging sparkling Rossini on the doorstep – The Scotsman
10. a stinker of a production! - http://www.seenandheard-international.com
11.little dramatic integrity and nothing that effectively linked the concept together. - http://www.seenandheard-international.com
AND for experienced opera audience reviews see...