I fell in love with this opera the first time I heard it years ago on the old Decca set with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. Since then, I've been waiting for a completely satisfying recording of this score. I'll have to continue to wait, but this recording is nearly there. This performance uses the critical edition prepared by Philip Gosset and Alberto Zedda. As a point of comparison, it plays nearly an hour longer than the edition Richard Bonynge prepared for his wife. A piano vocal score based on the critical edition has not yet been published. I followed the recording with a copy of the Royal Edition piano vocal score edited by Arthur Sullivan and J. Pittman, published in the late 19th century. (A reproduction of this score is printed by Kalmus). The version performed appears to be substantially the same as the vocal score, only with a few recitatives that were deleted from the published score. All the singers take some tasteful variations in their repeats. I chose the word "variation" rather than "ornamentation" deliberately. There are a few extra notes added, but, for the most part, the repeated passages are sung with a somewhat simplified vocal line.
This is my first experience of the voice of Alex Penda. Having listened to the recording twice, I'm still puzzling over my reaction to it. I think "exciting" is the best word, even if excitement comes at a price. Sometimes the sound is not pretty and occasionally the coloratura may owe more to intent than to execution, but she hurls herself in to the part with an abandon that's quite thrilling. Her extensive use of chest voice may not be wise, though it certainly creates a powerful effect. Whilst listening to her Semiramide, I was often reminded of the way in which the young Elena Soulioutis attacked the part of Verdi's Abigaille. I hope Miss Penda's career will be of greater length than that of Miss Soulioutis.
Marianna Pizzolato is a fine Arsace, but no one will ever erase my memories of Marilyn Horne in this role. (I had the pleasure of seeing her perform this part on stage many years ago.) John Osborn dashes off the part of Idreno with both limpid tone and panache. The two basses have all the notes and lots of presence. I found the tone of Lorenzo Ragazzo (Assur) to be a bit dry and vibrato-laden. Andrea Mastroni's voice is juicier and more pleasing in the part of Oroe.
Orchestra and chorus are both good. The conducting is best described as reliable. The sound quality has the same boxy constriction I've noticed in other recordings form the Rossini in Wildbad series. It may be a limitation of the acoustic of the theatre.
The only other recording I've heard that uses the critical edition of the score is the now-deleted Philips recording curiously conducted by Ion Marin. This boasts an excellent cast that includes Cheryl Studer's fine rendition of the title role, as well as Jennifer Larmore, Samuel Ramey and Frank Lopardo. However, it suffers from erratic conducting and an odd sound. Philips recorded this in "4D" sound -- an effort that was soon abandoned just had Decca had tried and dropped "quadraphonic" sound 40 years ago. The result is that at times some of the voices get consigned to the background when played on conventional stereo equipment or on headphones.
I see that a recording from the Vlaamse Opera, conducted by Alberto Zedda, has recently been released. I presume this, too, uses the critical edition, but I have yet to hear it. I probably won't wait too long. In the meantime . . .
The recording under review receives my qualified recommendation. I certainly enjoyed it and I know that I'll listen to it many more times. So, give it a try. At the bargain price, you won't be out much if you don't like it.