Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 -1868)
Aureliano in Palmira - Dramma serio in two acts (1813)
Aureliano, Emperor of Rome - Kenneth Tarver (tenor); Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra in love with Arsace - Catriona Smith (soprano); Arsace, Prince of Persia - Silvia Tro Santafé (mezzo); Publio, daughter of Valeriano, secretly in love with Arsace - Ezgi Kutlu (mezzo); Oraspe, general of the Palmyran forces - Julian Alexander Smith (tenor); Licinio, a tribune - Vuyani Mlinde (Bass); High Priest of Isis - Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Maurizio Benini
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, October 2010
OPERA RARA ORC46 [3 CDs: 62.39 + 49.50 + 56.14]
Aureliano in Palmira comes in at number 12 in Rossini’s thirty-nine operatic titles. It was premiered at La Scala, Milan, to open the Carnival Season in 1813. This was a fabulous year for Rossini and had seen three other works reach the stage including the highly successful Tancredi (see DVD review) and L’Italiana in Algeri (see bargain CD with Marilyn Horne). These works propelled Rossini to the forefront of Italian opera composers. This led to his being summoned to Naples by the influential impresario Barbaja and offered, in his twenty-first year, the Music Directorship of the Royal Theatres of that city, the San Carlo and the Fondo. Barbaja’s proposals appealed to Rossini for several reasons. Not only was his annual fee generous and guaranteed, but also the San Carlo had a professional orchestra, unlike the theatres of Venice and Rome. The composer saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of his opera composition in more adventurous directions. Under the terms of the contract, Rossini was to provide two operas each year for Naples whilst being permitted to compose occasional works for other cities. The composer tended to explore the limits of this contract and in the first two years composed no fewer than five operas for other venues, including four for Rome.
Despite the earlier successes of 1813, Aureliano in Palmira was only modestly received in Milan despite the management of La Scala lavishing generous resources on the new opera. Rossini, as Richard Osborne explains in the informative booklet essay, blamed this poor response on the singers, particularly the loss of the high tenor Giovanni David to smallpox and the limitations of his replacement, which forced Rossini to lower the tenor tessitura in the second act. Rossini was to write several roles for David at the San Carlo. Also, Rossini had to deal with the temperamental castrato Velluti whom he had earlier heard alongside the Spanish Isabella Colbran, who in Naples was to become his mistress and later wife. By the time of Aureliano in Palmira, Velluti, it seems, was more preening prima donna than vocal superstar. The role of Arsace, written for Velluti, was the only one Rossini ever composed for this voice type. Despite its modest reception in Milan, Aureliano in Palmira played throughout Italy, and as far away as London, until at least 1830. Its flaccid story, and the regular borrowings that Rossini indulged, including the overture in another three operas, saw its ultimate demise. Later performances transferred the role of Arsace, created by Velluti, to a mezzo en travesti.
The opera is set in 272 AD in the ancient city of Palmyra, modern Syria, where the queen, Zenobia, and her lover, the Persian general Arsace, are defeated in battle by the Roman Emperor Aureliano. The Emperor agrees to free Arsace if Zenobia will give herself to him, but she refuses. Eventually, Aureliano is won over by the lovers' devotion, freeing them when they pledge loyalty to Rome.
Taking on a review of an opera one has never heard complete before has its own challenges and requires, at least for me, particular strategies. First, I listen without reading anything of the plot and get a feel for the music, knowing, in this case intimately, the composer’s previous and following works. Second hearing involves following through the libretto along with the singing and music, relating the words and the drama to the music. Further listenings are concerned with note-taking on the quality of the singing, and conducting as well as confirming any feelings I have about the quality and character of the music. In the case of Aureliano in Palmira I found the opening act (CD 1 and CD 2 Trs.1-9) zipped along in typical Rossini manner. There’s plenty of melody to recognise from his other works and plenty of musical interest in the duets such as that between Zenobia and Arsace and also Aureliano as well as her cavatina. I found the music often lacked any distinctive relationship with the drama as is found in Tancredi, its immediate but one predecessor. If I am frank, act two also has more languor than drama as the happy conclusion draws near. It progressively takes some of the inspirational fire out of Rossini as the act progresses. That said, the music flows and is tuneful, but what by the end was holding my attention and emotions was the quality of the sung and conducted performance rather than the music. Perhaps that, in the ultimate, is what bel canto is all about.
Somehow or other Opera Rara keeps pulling magnificent bel canto singers out of some magic hat. In this polyphonic multinational cast there are well-known and unknown voices; not one is duff. It must seem like a miracle to find a replacement for the soprano cast as Zenobia and then to get as replacement a Scotswoman who is a Kammersängerin of the Stuttgart State Opera. She had to step into the gap late in the day and sings with a firmness of tone and pleasing capacity for characterisation that nearly matches the other two outstanding principals. Of these Kenneth Tarver is a delight. He sings with good unforced open tone and without undue stress to create a full and convincing Aureliano in his many moods. Pleasing as those two are, the biggest surprise, and the biggest success, is the singing and overall performance of the Spanish mezzo Silvia Tro Santafé as Arsace, originally, as already noted, written for a castrato. Her voice is flexible to meet the demands of the coloratura with her vocal centre and lower tones being the best I have heard from a mezzo for some time. Despite some of the quality singers Opera Rara have cast in various recordings over the past few years Santafé is one of the best. She is a singer who in this recording uses her considerable vocal capacities and quality to convey the emotions, drama and characterisation of a role in a manner I have not heard in a young singer for a long time.
If I eulogise about the principals I must add also reference to the significant contribution of the several minor parts, which are without weakness. Particularly notable are another mezzo, the Turkish Ezgi Kutlu and the basses Vuyani Mlinde and Andrew Foster-Williams. I must not forget the tenor Julian Alexander Smith. All make significant contributions to the sung quality of this recording. So do the chorus of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir prepared by Renato Balsadonna and the quite superb contribution of Maurizio Benini on the rostrum, a man with bel canto in his bones.
The recording comes with Opera Rara's usual lavishly illustrated book, including a complete libretto with an English translation by Jeremy Commons. Add to this an article and synopsis by Richard Osborne.
As with the recording of Bellini’s Il Pirata (see review) this recording was made with the benefit of financial support given by the Peter Moores Foundation, one of the last of many to do so on this label. No longer benefiting from that support, Opera Rara has to husband its resources and recordings with care and seek funds elsewhere. Opera Rara are seeking help from all bel canto lovers for a recording of Donizetti’s rarely heard Belisario,premieredthe year after the debut of Maria Stuarda in Milan and Lucia di Lammermoor in Naples. It is further highly dramatic and melodic product of the composer’s most creative period. Recorded in London in autumn 2012 it cost in the region of £150,000 (see appeal). If this project comes to fruition Belisario will follow a recording of the composer’s opéra-comique Rita,(see appeal)written in 1841 but not staged until 1860 and for which funds are also being sought. Both works are conducted by Sir Mark Elder.
Robert J Farr
Not among the greatest of the composer’s operas but a must for all bel canto enthusiasts as well as Rossini completists.