Rossini's 'Semiramide,' a Doting Mother in a Dire Situation
The opera's action takes place in ancient Babylon. As ACT ONE begins, Semiramide has been the Queen of Babylon for 15 years -- ever since the mysterious death of her husband, King Nino. Since then, their son Ninia has disappeared and the people have been waiting the entire time for Semiramide to choose a successor to Nino.
One possible candidate is King Idreno of Indus, who is in love with Semiramide. Another is Prince Assur, who also loves her. Assur and the queen also have another, more sinister connection. The old king, Nino, was actually murdered, and Semiramide and Assur were complicit in his death.
But Semiramide has a third man in mind -- both as the new king and as her new husband. The Queen has her eye on the heroic soldier Arsace. But in a religious ceremony, when she hints at her plans, the temple rumbles, and the sacred flame expires -- suggesting the gods disapprove.
When Arsace himself finally arrives in Babylon, he's not looking for the Queen. Arsace, it turns out, is in love with another woman, the Princess Azema. He's also carrying a sealed scroll -- left for him by his father, whom he never knew.
When Semiramide summons Arsace, and he speaks of a newfound passion, he's actually talking about his love for Azema. But the Queen thinks he's declaring his feelings for her. When the time comes for Semiramide to announce a new king, she goes through with her plan -- declaring that Arsace will be both the king and her husband.
But when the High Priest Oroe starts to bless the union, the sky flashes, and the Ghost of the dead king Nino emerges from his tomb. The spirit says that before Arsace can rule Babylon, there are crimes to be avenged, and murderers who must be punished with death. Arsace promises to seek vengeance. But as the act ends, everyone is terrified, and nobody is sure who the guilty parties are, or what crime has actually been committed.
In ACT TWO, Assur goes to Semiramide. He demands that she name him king, and threatens to expose her role in the old king's death if she refuses.
But there's another secret yet to come out. Arsace has given the mysterious scroll he brought to Babylon to the High Priest. Now, Oroe tells Arsace what the scroll reveals. It turns out that Arsace is actually Ninia, King Nino's long-lost son -- making Semiramide Arsace's mother. The scroll also contains all the evidence needed to prove that Semiramide and Assur murdered King Nino. Without knowing it, Arbace has promised the ghost of his father that he would sacrifice his own mother.
Semiramide finds Arsace, and he produces the scroll. After reading it, she breaks down, and offers Arsace her life. Arsace refuses, saying the gods would never have him kill his mother. Yet he still feels bound by the promise he made to his father.
Meanwhile, Assur learns that his guilt has been revealed. At first, he plans to kill Arsace. Then, in a remarkable scene, he imagines the murdered king standing in his way. Assur seems to be going mad -- but eventually he steels himself, and goes looking for Arsace in Nino's tomb.
At the tomb, the two men confront each other, and before long Semiramide also appears, hoping to protect her son. Swords are drawn, and Arsace lunges at Assur, but Semiramide steps between them. Arsace's blade strikes her, and she falls dead.
Realizing that he has killed his mother, Arsace takes up the sword again, to kill himself. But Oroe stops him. The people cry out that Arsace has done the will of the gods. They plead with him to become their new king, and he reluctantly accepts their praise as the opera ends.