The role of Arsace in Rossini's "Semiramide" features several striking pieces among which his opening cavatina is certainly a crown jewel and well-worth of a compilation.
As the piece is quite long, I'm providing only one full rendition, complete with the preceding prelude and recitative. The prelude is unusual in the fact that it features several discernible symbols, rather than one central motive: the melody seems to be an invocation of Arsace's conflicting emotions, beginning as a gentle march (happiness of returning to his homeland), it quickly goes into a more minor mood (possibly, in combination with the chilling high trills for the strings in the second section, foreboding Arsace's imminent future); after a short transition, the strings are suddenly contrasted the high-playing flutes and clarinets possibly to note Arsace's entrance and amazement at the temple of Baal; the horns, an omnipresent instrument, are, of course, there to symbolize the military nature of Arsace's character. The recitative is dramatically built with several striking sections: for example, the rising orchestral and vocal line, as Arsace feels terror at being in the presence of god. But, to be fair, the recitative merely serves to introduce Arsace and his place in the plot, with rather slim dramatics. The cavatina is built around the traditional structure of "cantabile - cabaletta" but it's an arresting example of Rossini's beautiful writing. Moreover, the cantabile actually uses several of the ideas already hinted in the prelude. What's more the opening is actually employs a three-piece structure, rather than a repeat of the same melody: first, a gentle andante as Arsace begins to remember his first meeting with Azema; then, a gradualy rising and exciting section as Arsace becomes more and more agitated, remembering his lover's poor state; finally, an almost silent and breathless arioso as the warrior remembers Azema's first look. What's interesting is that the cantabile uses a very spare musical background, amounting to a bass line and several additional effects (sustained string and horn lines), making the soloist particularly vulnerable. Moreover, the cantabile almost amounts to a contrasting concerto for the voice, similar to Mercadante's flute concertos. The cabaletta is set apart from the rest of the aria by a more alive tempo which breaks the dreaminess of the cantabile. A point of interest: "Semiramide" is, perhaps, Rossini's most cabaletta-centered opera, as it is in the cabaletta where the main emotions are presented, with the cantabile being a preparation for the outpour of feelings. Arsace's cabaletta is one of the best of its' kind: virtuostic, dramatically viable, interesting harmonically and exciting at the same time.
While Arsace's aria is brilliant, one can't over-look the fact that it is sung about a woman who should have been given a more interesting role but is left with a recitative-part: Azema. Her vocal and dramatical unimportance turns the conflict between Arsace, Assur and Idreno (five of thirteen pieces are sung because of Azema) completely meaningless; moreover, Arsace doesn't even have a duet with his love to further prove his emotions. This imbalance is so strong that I sometimes feel that a couple of insertions aimed at expanding Azema would have been most welcome. But then "Semiramide" is more about music than drama :). Anyway, getting back to the compilation.
I've always wanted to do a compilation on this piece, one of my favorite of all Rossini arias. I have several renditions of the aria, but I'm going to limit the whole upload to just five:
1) Jennifer Larmore on the complete recording under Ion Marin (1992).
Presented complete to give a basic idea of the piece.
Larmore is still in the early stages of her career, when the voice was particularly fresh, while the drama was already completely in place. It's obvious that Larmore believes in the piece, so committed she is to it. Her voice is masculine enough for us to believe the drama and is perfectly strong, balanced, making this a strong beginning for the other versions to live up to. She adopts several ornaments, even in the cantabile, which are all well-chosen to highlight the strengths of her rendition (I especially would note her wonderful ornaments on the stretch between 9:26 - 9:30). The orchestra is strong and responsive, and though Marin seriously sets a fast tempo for the cantabile, Larmore manages it. Enjoy :)!