Semiramide, melodramma tragico in two acts to a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, was first performed at Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 3rd February 1823.
The singers in the first performances were Isabella Colbran (Semiramide), Rosa Mariani (Arsace), Filippo Galli (Assur), John Sinclair (Idreno), Matilde Spagna (Azema), Luciano Mariani (Oroe).
The story is taken from the tragedy by Voltaire (1748).
In the Temple of Baal in Babylon. The priests (or Magi) have assembled to officiate at the solemn ceremony preceding the designation of the heir to the throne. Oroe, the High Priest, in an ecstatic religious trance, has just heard the voice of the God, pronouncing that the murder of Nino must be avenged before a new king can be proclaimed. At Oroe’s signal the gates of the temple are thrown open and the populace flock in, bearing offerings and singing hymns of praise to Baal. The procession is headed by the Babylonians; after come the Indians, led by their king Idreno, who, in love with the Assyrian princess Azema, prays to the God that his love might be returned. Finally, accompanied by satraps and the nobles of the realm, on comes Assur, Prince of Assyria, who is certain that he will be chosen as the new king. His presumption irritates not only Idreno but also Oroe, who knows, without ever having revealed the secret, that Assur himself was the murderer of King Nino. The angry exchanges of the three men are interrupted by the arrival of Semiramide and her festive court. However, an unexpected event spreads panic amongst all those present: no sooner has Semiramide approached the altar than the sacred fire goes out. Oroe warns everyone that this signifies the God’s wrath because of a deadly crime that has long gone unpunished, but Assur is only impatient to hear the proclamation of the new king. The High Priest assures him that this will take place that very day, as soon as an answer is delivered from the oracle at Memphis. Everyone now leaves the temple, Idreno and Assur both hopeful, Semiramide anxious and Oroe fully cognisant of the tragedy that is about to be unfolded.
Meanwhile Arsace, the young general of the army, has returned from a long expedition in the Caucasus. He has been recalled to Babylon by a secret order of Semiramide’s, and he is anxious to see the Princess Azema again, for he is in love with her. Furthermore, his father Fradate, on his deathbed, consigned to his care a casket containing a secret message, which he is to deliver into Oroe’s hands. The High Priest receives Arsace with enthusiasm and, revealing to him that Nino was murdered, entrusts him with the task of avenging the late king. Their conversation is interrupted by the unexpected return of Assur, who is enraged when he sees that Arsace has returned without any orders to that effect from him personally, but he becomes even more furious when the young general reveals his love for Azema: how dare a Scythian aspire to the hand of a princess, a direct descendant of Baal, who was destined to Ninia in marriage? He alone, Assur, an Assyrian and of the family of Baal, can be a worthy aspirant to the hand of Azema. Arsace, in answer to this coldly calculating desire for power, declares the deep sincerity of his love. It is clear that from now on the two men will regard each other with heartily reciprocated hatred and deadly rivalry.
In a courtyard of the palace. Azema, meanwhile, is overjoyed at the news that her beloved Arsace has returned. Idreno comes to ask her hand in marriage, but she puts him off with an evasive answer. The Indian King understands that he has a rival, but mistakenly supposes that Assur is the man. So, when Azema denies that she loves Assur, Idreno is relieved and pours out his love in a passionate declaration, which the princess graciously listens to without showing any signs of returning his passion.
In the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, meanwhile, surrounded by the ladies of her court, Semiramide also expresses her joy at Arsace’s return, and hopes that he will be able to resolve all the problems that are threatening her kingdom. Mitrane, captain of the royal guard, returns at last from Memphis bearing an answer from the oracle, which declares that all troubles will come to an end upon the return of Arsace and the celebration of a marriage. Radiant with happiness, Semiramide orders Mitrane to get everything ready for the nuptial ceremony, to summon the leading citizens and to call Arsace to her; the young general comes in immediately. The queen and he have an affectionate conversation that is, however, based upon a misunderstanding: Arsace, having denounced Prince Assur’s desire for power, declares his fervent devotion to the queen; whilst his feelings for her are blameless, the queen can hardly restrain her passion in her replies, so tender as to constitute almost an open declaration of her love. Neither, however, quite understands what are the inner feelings of the other.
Assur and Oroe meet in the Courtyard of the palace. When the arrogant prince once more reveals his thirst for power, the High Priest warns him that divine punishment will surely overtake him.
Shortly afterwards, in a magnificent hall in the palace, where we find the throne and the entrance to the mausoleum of the late King Nino, a stately procession unfolds. At its climax Semiramide takes her palace on the throne and, after having asked and obtained, from all present, respect for her decision, whatever this might be, announces the name of the new king, who will also be her new husband: Arsace. The populace is overjoyed, but the young general and Azema are shocked and grieved, Assur trembles with rage and Oroe is dismayed. Idreno is the only one of the principals who is delighted by the queen’s decision: he asks her for Azema’s hand in marriage, to which the queen assents. Just as the royal wedding is about to be celebrated, however, a supernatural portent terrifies and prostrates everybody: amidst thunder and lightning the doors of the dead king’s tomb open, the ghost of Nino appears on the threshold and speaks. Arsace will reign as king, but first he must offer a human sacrifice to appease the ashes of his predecessor. Without having nominated the victim of the sacrifice, the ghost now returns to the tomb. The marriage ceremony is postponed. Everyone is overwhelmed, thinking of the tragedy that is about to involve them all.
A courtyard in the palace. The palace has been surrounded by Mitrane’s royal guards. A wrathful Assur accosts Semiramide, demanding to know why she has not named him as the new king: has the queen perhaps forgotten that fifteen years earlier, when they were lovers and accomplices, they joined together in poisoning Nino? Semiramide, deeply disturbed, confesses that she had behaved thoughtlessly, but declares that Nino’s assassin has no hope of ascending the throne. Assur retorts by reminding her of her participation in the murder; the queen is tortured by feelings of remorse, but finds comport in the hope that Arsace will be able to defend her. Their embittered exchanges end in mutual threats of vengeance.
Meanwhile, in the sanctuary, Oroe is revealing to Arsace the secret of his identity: the casket that he has brought back from the Caucasus contained a letter written by the dying King Nino to his faithful friend Fradate, entrusting to his care his son and heir Ninia, hoping thus to save him from the murderous hands of Assur, his assassin, and naming Semiramide as Assur’s accomplice. Arsace, therefore, is none other than Ninia himself. When he reads the letter the young man is horror-struck but, encouraged by Oroe, he gathers himself together and prepares to avenge his father with the blood of Assur; he begs the gods, however, to pardon his mother.
In Semiramide’s rooms Azema complains to Mitrane that she and her beloved Arsace have been parted. At this point Idreno comes in and, overhearing her, realizes that she does not love him after all. His love for Azema is so great that he hopes that time will teach her to return his love, but the most the princess can do for him at the moment is to offer him a mournful obedience. Semiramide, on the other hand, not knowing the latest developments, is overjoyed at the sight of Arsace and cannot understand why he is so bashful, but when he shows her the revealing letter her joy turns to horror and the desire to expiate her crime; the queen begs her son to kill her on the spot, and in that way avenge his father. However, filial love proves stronger than the spirit of vengeance, and Ninia throws himself into his mother’s arms; he promises her that Assur alone shall be punished. However, Semiramide does not believe that she can ever hope to be forgiven.
It is nightfall, and Assur finds himself in a remote part of the palace, adjoining the tomb of Nino and is considering seizing power by force, but his followers come to tell him that Oroe has incited the people against him; his schemes, therefore, are doomed to failure. In spite of this, Assur still longs to kill Arsace. He therefore prepares to commit the sacrilegious act of entering the tomb of Nino, but he is repulsed by terrible visions. His terror does not last long; picking up his courage, Assur resolutely enters the mausoleum. Mitrane, who has witnessed this scene from a hidingplace, hurries away to warn the queen.
Meanwhile, having discovered that someone has ventured to propane the king’s tomb, the priests descend, fully armed, into the vaults under the mausoleum of Nino: they conceal themselves amongst the pillars, ready to intervene when the moment should strike. Shortly afterwards Ninia is led in by Oroe. The young man asks where he will find the victim destined to be sacrificed and the High Priest replies that the gods will lead the victim to the avenger’s hand. Assur comes in from the opposite side of the hall and Semiramide enters in the background; she remains at the foot of Nino’s tomb. Enshrouded in the gloom, Semiramide, Ninia and Assur all feel their courage waning away, when suddenly the voice of Oroe is heard, ordering Ninia to strike. But whilst the young man strikes with his sword in the dark hoping to kill Assur, his mother comes forward and it is she who receives the fatal blow, thus atoning for her guilty actions of long ago.
Priests and guards bearing torches disarm and arrest Assur, who is overwhelmed with rage and scorn when he learns that Arsace is Ninia himself; it is worse than death to him that Nino’s son should become King of Assyria. On the other hand, how fiercely exultant is his joy when he points out to Ninia his dying mother! Ninia, aghast at what he has done, wants to kill himself; Oroe, however, restrains him and the people, happy that the divine will has been accomplished and that Assyria has finally been freed, carry off Arsace in triumph, acclaiming him their new King.