Metropolitan Opera has brought back, after 25 years, a Rossini masterpiece, the tragic 1823 grand opera ‘Semiramide’ (Semiramis), for an eight-performance run. The cast features three up-and-coming American singers: soprano Angela Meade, from Washington, Pennsylvania’s mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong and Virginian bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green; Mexico’s show-stopping tenor Javier Camarena; and Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov. British conductor Gareth Morrell led them and the formidable forces of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a stirring but sadly undersold display Wednesday, Feb. 28. Despite cuts totaling 45 minutes, the two-act opera runs at three solid hours, rivaling last season’s four-act ‘Guillaume Tell,’ also by Gioachino Rossini.

Tangled web

The setting is ancient Babylon, with its legendary Hanging Gardens. Queen Semiramide is the fulcrum of political intrigue who almost marries her son. After having plotted with Assur the murder of her husband, King Nino, years before, she reigns supreme. All eyes on Princess Azema: Assur wants her as a trophy wife, to further his designs for the throne. Idreno, a prince from India, woos her, but she is indifferent to him. And the victorious warrior Arbace has loved her ever since rescuing her from Barbarians. But Semiramide loves Arbace. No one knows he’s really Ninia, Nino and Semiramide’s long-lost son. Semiramide offers Arbace whatever he desires, and he is shocked when she decrees that they are to wed and Azema will marry Idreno. Confused? There’s more, but we’ll spare you.

Fascinating structure

Despite its convoluted plot, the opera is a treasure trove of glorious music: tableaux for chorus, six arias (four with chorus), four duets and two concerted finales with soloists and chorus. The John Copley production [VIDEO] is also quite an eyeful. The architecture and motifs of John Conklin’s sets suggest how interrelated the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian world powers were. Michael Stennett’s Middle Eastern costumes—hundreds of them—are elegant, not kitschy, anchored on deep blue, emerald green and vivid purple, while gracing every hue between.

The power of words

The opera is interesting from a textual perspective too. To instill dread in 19th-century Italian audiences, librettist Gaetano Rossi [VIDEO] used recurring words of the horror ilk. For example, “orrendo”—which means dreadful, terrible, horrible—occurs six times; “terrore,” nine times; and “orrore” (horror), a whopping 23 times. The name Azema is declaimed or sung 17 times by her various suitors.

Yet the character goes undeveloped, merely contributing to dialogue and comments in concerted numbers. Musically and politically she is a mere pawn in Semiramide’s power games.

Steely soprano

Angela Meade has steadily grown in stature at Metropolitan Opera. In seasons past she has sung just two or three performances of title-role characters like, say, Anna Bolena or Norma; lately she has been cast for the entire run. The soprano, who struggles to move gracefully, really hit her stride in Act II, in its opening confrontation duet with her partner in crime and nemesis, Assur. She abounds in vocal power, which she keeps in reserve, with ferocious attacks, fiercely negotiating the intricate vocal lines with filigree precision.

Quite a discovery

The loudest curtain call was for Elizabeth DeShong. Her plush mezzo plumbs the depths and soars on high, never missing a single demisemiquaver. Her “Da quel giorno” aria and cabaletta is refinement itself, with silky supple softness, yet fire where flames must burn. In the soft singing department, perhaps the evening’s loveliest moment is her tender mother-son recognition duet with Semiramide, though its spectacular cabaletta ratchets up the volume along with the excitement.

Flat character, fine tenor

Despite two arias, the role of Idreno is two-dimensional, not clearly defined like most principal Rossini characters. He’s either mooning for Azema or trying to persuade her to forget Arbace. Stepping in for an ill Javier Camarena, Robert McPherson made the most of the role’s limited possibilities. His tenor is well-suited to Idreno’s sincerity and amorous ardor. The role’s punishing stratospheric range creates challenges for his singing at full volume, but he valiantly dispatches the intricate vocal ornaments.

Deep madness

To Ildar Abdrazakov fell the rare honors of the opera’s “mad scene,” practically the sole province of sopranos, hardly ever of the bass. The dramatic pinnacle of Act II sees the haughty Assur, in front of male members of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, singing “Let us flee,” but some invisible force holds him back. He staggers, which the vocal line, ever more fragmented, reflects. All eyes riveted on the artist during his compelling breakdown—begging for mercy for his treachery—and his voluptuous tone filled the theater to the rafters.

More than just honorable mention

Bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green’s deep, warm voice is the first heard in the opera, as Baal’s high priest, Oroe, presides a sacrament that goes awry, with dramatic thunderclaps and lightning flashes. It will be great someday to see him in a leading role. Soprano Sarah Shafer debuted at the house in this run in what must be the most frustrating role in all opera. From her first appearance, brandishing a lovely, light voice, she looks ready to launch into an aria. But, no, Idreno takes over, the first of various interruptions. After the cavatina of his Act-II aria, she takes his extended hands. “Oh, good,” you’ll think, “at least she gets to sing a duet.” Wrong again. It gets to the point where you want to call out “Just give her an aria and let her sing!”

Helm of mighty forces

Conductor Gareth Morrell led the proceedings, keeping orchestra, chorus and soloists tautly together and moving things right along. The orchestra eked from Rossini’s elaborate score every nuance, particularly effective toward the end when the strings play anemically wispy, ghostlike passages for Assur’s scene before Nino’s tomb. The chorus had a busy night and provided excellent support in the arias enhanced by chorus and in the massive finales.

Semiramide,’ by Gioachino Rossini. Five performances remain, till March 17, at Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, New York.