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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ermione - Opera in Two Acts (1819).
First performed at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 27 March 1819
Libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola based on Racine’s tragedy Andromaque.
Ermione, rejected lover of Pyrrhus and loved by Orestes, Anna Caterina Antonacci (sop); Andromache, widow of Hector and a prisoner of Pyrrhus who is infatuated by her, Diana Montague (mezzo); Orestes, son of Agamemnon, Bruce Ford (ten); Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, betrothed to Ermione, Jorge Lopez-Yanez (ten), Pylades, companion of Orestes, Paul Austin Kelly (ten); Phoenix, tutor to Pyrrhus, Gwynne Howell (bass); Cleone, Julie Unwin (sop); Cefisa, Lorna Windsor (mez); Attalus, Paul Nillon (ten)
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Filmed for Channel Four Television Corporation at the Glyndebourne Festival, June 1995
Director, Graham Vick; Designer, Richard Hudson; Lighting Designer, Wolfgang Göbbel
Directed for video by Humphrey Burton
Picture format NTSC 4:3. Colour. Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo.
Subtitles in English, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese
WARNER MUSIC VISION DVD VIDEO 0630-14012-2 [138:00]


 

Ermione was Rossini’s twenty-seventh opera and his fifth for Naples. It followed a mere three months after his Ricciardo e Zoraide for the same theatre. Unlike its predecessor it was received with indifference on its premiere and was neither revived nor performed again anywhere until 1977 when a concert performance was given in Sienna. It was not staged again until given at the Rossini Festival at Pesaro in 1987. Performances quickly followed elsewhere. These often featured Montserrat Caballé in the eponymous role but I know of no recording of any of her performances. The work reached England in concert form conducted by Mark Elder in 1992 and reached America the same year, also in concert. The eminent Rossini scholar, Professor Philip Gossett, considers it ‘one of the finest works in the history of 19th century Italian opera’. A 1986 audio-only recording exists conducted by Claudio Scimone and with Cecilia Gasdia as Ermione and featuring the specialist Rossini tenor duo of Chris Merritt and William Matteuzzi. Originally issued on the Erato label it is well worth hearing although not currently available.

In my Rossini Conspectus, and on the basis of that Erato audio recording, I tended, reluctantly, to disagree with Gossett.  I recognised the structural innovations within the work which include a lamenting chorus during the overture and formal arias split with intrusions from other characters. My appreciation was perhaps limited by the lack of a half decent synopsis let alone a libretto. This Glyndebourne production allows me to overcome those limitations and I can now see where Professor Gossett is coming from. Not only are there the English words to enable the viewer to follow the action, there is also the superb direction and singing. The production was Glyndebourne’s first attempt at one of Rossini’s opera seria. It was an unexpected success of the 1995 season. The director and designer eschewed a period setting. More importantly they were not tempted as other producers of Handel, for example, to set the work in an American desert war. In fact the setting is an Italian opera house auditorium with sparse grey neo-classical galleries. The pillared central stage of the opera house is set at a rather steep angle, which must have made movement a challenge for the singers as they move to and from centre-stage. The costumes are a mixture of late twentieth century militarist styling for the male parts to a stunning, off-shoulder, vivid royal blue, full flowing dress for Ermione.

Stendahl, in his famous ‘Life of Rossini’ (1824) suggests that the failure of the opera was due to the characters spending much of their time on stage ranting at each other. It is a good job Stendahl did not live long enough to see Verdi or the verismo composers, where the characters spend their time plotting seduction or the death of their opponents. At least in this plot Pyrrhus wants to marry his prisoner Andromache even if he uses her son as a tool to gain his ends. Opera seria was increasingly seen as old hat in the early years of the primo ottocento, the period of Rossini’s Naples operas. This performance, superbly realised for the small screen by Humphrey Burton, shows how such works can be brought alive by sensitive direction and by singers who can also act with conviction whilst singing vocally demanding and often florid music. Diana Montague sings the role of prisoner Andromache with voluptuous expressive tone and fine legato (CH. 2). A long time favourite of Glyndebourne, often en travesti, she portrays to perfection the desperate mother who will sacrifice her own life for that of her son (CH. 8). As her captor Pyrrhus, Jorge Lopez-Yanez copes admirably with the florid music, singing with a forthright forward tone and clear diction. His three-part aria, first tenderly to Andromache, interspersed with chorus contributions, is particularly noteworthy as he concludes by telling Ermione to go to Sparta and marry someone else (CH. 5). If Bruce Ford is marginally better in the vocal gymnastics stakes it is probably his vast experience in this fach on stage and record, particularly for Opera Rara. In the many audio recordings in my collection in which he features I cannot readily recall one in which he sings with such mellifluousness, sappy tone and graceful phrasing. His acting, whether as the frustrated suitor of Ermione (CH. 6) or as the murderer, on her instigation, of Pyrrhus, is a tour de force (CH. 12). Anna Caterina Antonacci as Ermione completes a considerable line-up of principals. Singing in her native Italian she throws her consummate histrionic and vocal skills into the portrayal. Ermione dominates act 2 from scene 2 (CH. 9) to the end of the work as she swoons on realising that she alone has brought about the death of Pyrrhus who she loves although he finally rejected her  (CH. 12). Anna Caterina Antonacci’s acting, florid singing including decoration of the vocal line, and diction are at one with the wide demands of the role of Ermione. Hers is formidable interpretation that is appropriately acclaimed at the curtain calls.

The comprimario roles are all well sung and acted. Of particular note is Paul Austin Kelly as Orestes’ companion Pylades and Gwynne Howell as Phoenix. Andrew Davis conducts in style, moving the drama along whilst allowing the singers adequate time for their phrasing and written vocal acrobatics. The sound is first class and will satisfy the most discerning listener. My only criticism is the rather sparse Chapter Divisions and the lack of a booklet with some background to the opera and this memorable Glyndebourne production. All that is provided is a brief resumé of the plot, with no cross-reference to the listed Chapters. This is printed on the inside face of the DVD cover. I have noticed this pattern on other Warner DVDs. It is a parsimony that sells this exceptional performance short of its deserved gloss.

Robert J Farr

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