The Kennedy Center


About the Work

Gioacchino Rossini Composer: Gioachino Rossini
© Richard Freed

Rossini composed Semiramide, to a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, within a single month, and the opera was given its premiere in Venice on February 3, 1823. The National Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance of the Overture on January 25, 1943, with Allard de Ritter conducting, and its most recent ones on May 17 and 18, under Elisabeth Schulze.
The score calls for piccolo, flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings. Duration, 12 minutes.

In the opera house Rossini is represented most prominently by his masterwork The Barber of Seville and somewhat less frequently by such other superb comedies as La Cenerentola and L'italiana in Algeri. His grand historical and tragic operas, together with many of his other comedies, are remembered almost entirely on the strength of concert performances of their respective overtures. Semiramide was the last stage work he composed in Italy before settling in Paris. Gaetano Rossi's libretto is based on Voltaire's Semiramis, which served as inspiration for more than thirty other operas by various composers. In this drama the Queen of Babylon murders her husband for love of a young general, who is subsequently identified as her own son, and whose life she saves by sacrificing her own to an assassin's sword.

The very substantial Overture is one of the two longest ones Rossini composed, the other being the one to his valedictory work for the stage, William Tell. Since the latter is more or less a miniature four-movement symphony, the Overture to Semiramide stands as Rossini's longest single movement for orchestra (the Venetians at the opera's premiere felt it was too long); it is also one of his very finest offerings in this form, filled with characteristically attractive tunes and brilliant effects, including prime examples of the famous "Rossini crescendo." While several of Rossini's 23 earlier operas were given overtures so independent of them that in some instances a single overture was used to introduce as many as three different stage works, the overture he composed for Semiramide does contain themes from the opera itself. The one stated by the horn quartet in the introduction, to cite one example, comes from a very dramatic scene in the royal mausoleum.

If among the felicitous touches of color and melody a suggestion of high tragedy seems to be missing in this stunning piece, we might consider Spike Hughes's provocative observation that "perhaps Rossini's own vivacious character made him constitutionally incapable of writing convincingly tragic music." The broader consensus, of course, is that Rossini was apparently incapable of writing music lacking in strongly appealing directness, brilliant exploitation of the orchestra's resources, or those elusive elements called wit and charm.