Rossini's 'Semiramide,' a Doting Mother in a Dire Situation

woo-1639-semiramide mainAt first blush, you might not think that a horror movie, a TV cartoon episode, and an opera by Rossini could have a great deal in common -- much less that they might all share a single, highly-disturbing plot element.  But think again.

The movie is Brian De Palma's lurid, 1976 psychodrama Carrie, and the TV episode is from the irreverent animated comedy South Park.  Unexpectedly, the plot element they share with our featured opera this week, Rossini's Semiramide, is one of the most horrifying of all crimes:  matricide.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, among these three, seemingly disparate entertainments, the two in which the matricidal element most closely aligns are Rossini's opera ... and South Park!  

In the film the matricide is pretty straightforward.  De Palma's Carrie decides that her mother is at the root of her problems, and executes the ultimate form of revenge.

In the opera and the cartoon show, things aren't quite so straightforward. In the South Park episode, the character Cartman does fly into a murderous rage, and he does go for his mother with a knife -- but his conscience wins out in the end, and mom emerges safe and sound.  In Semiramide, an angry son also thinks better of murdering his own mother, and decides to relent.  But she winds up dead anyway, when she steps into a deadly conflict, trying to save her son, and is killed by mistake.

Semiramide was the last opera Rossini composed in Italy, before moving, more or less permanently, to Paris.  The drama premiered at La Fenice, in Venice, in 1823.  Its libretto is based on a play by Voltaire, and the title character is the Queen of Babylon. Her long lost son returns to the city to discover that his father has been murdered, and that the queen was complicit.  He vows to murder Semiramide out of revenge -- but that's before he learns that the queen is actually his mother.

Like the plots of many operas from that time, the story seems more than a bit unlikely.  Yet it presented Rossini, one of music's most brilliant and instinctive dramatists, with an exotic setting to evoke, and a treasure trove of complex characters and relationships to express.  The result is a genuinely brilliant opera in which Rossini, perhaps anticipating a new phase in his career, abandons some of opera's then-current styles and traditions to create one of his most exciting, passionate and deeply emotive scores.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Semiramide from the 2016 Proms Concerts, at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  Conductor Mark Elder leads a performance featuring the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with a brilliant turn by the Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova in the title role.