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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Aureliano in Palmira (1813)
Aureliano – Juan Francisco Gatell (tenor)
Zenobia – Silvia Dalla Benetta (soprano)
Arsace – Marina Viotti (mezzo-soprano)
Publia – Ana Victória Pitts (mezzo-soprano)
Oraspe – Xiang Xu (tenor)
Licinio – Zhiyuan Chen (bass)
High Priest – Baurzhan Anderzhanov (bass)
Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań
Virtuosi Brunensis/José Miguel Péres-Sierra
rec. 12, 14 and 22 July 2017, Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad
Liner notes and synopsis in English and German enclosed. The Italian libretto may be accessed online. NAXOS 8.660448-50 [3 CDs: 167:05]
Aureliano in Palmira was Rossini’s twelfth opera, and came immediately after his two break-through works Tancredi and L’italiana in Algeri. Immediately after Aureliano followed Il turco in Italia, which was also quite successful, so Aureliano may be regarded as the ugly duckling in this company. The premiere at La Scala in Milan on 26 December 1813 was a flop, but that was obviously more the fault of the mediocre singers than the quality of the music. It was however quickly rehabilitated and during the next 20 years it was staged in at least 50 towns, but with few exceptions never outside Italy, and after 1835 it was never played during the 19th century. Not even after the Rossini revival from the mid-20th century has been seen very often. Rossini himself initially thought well of the music but then he lost interest in it and used quite a lot of the melodies for other works. Thus the unwary listener who buys this set at a venture, will suspect he’s got the wrong opera as soon as he hears the first bars of the overture, saying: “But this is The Barber of Seville!” And it is. Allegedly Rossini wrote the music for The Barber in less than three weeks and had no time to compose a new overture. So he recycled the Aureliano overture, which he had already done the previous year, when Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra needed an overture. And when the imaginary curtain rises for the first act we meet another old friend, Almaviva’s Ecco ridente, but here it is a chorus. Good melodies that in no way over-shadow the music that never found its way to later better-known works. Listening through the whole opera one finds number after number that distinctively affirm Rossini’s words to his parents after the fiasco premiere that he had written ‘divine music’.
We needn’t pay much attention to the story, which deals with the rivalry between Roman Emperor Aurelian and Prince Arsace of Persia over the beautiful Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. I can reveal though that it is a happy end. The libretto was written by Felice Romani, based on an earlier libretto for Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Zenobia in Palmira from 1789.
Formally this is an old-fashioned opera with secco recitatives (accompanied on a fortepiano) binding together the musical numbers. But these numbers are far from a string of virtuoso arias only. There are duets, trios, quartets – often in an unbroken sequence that constitutes a long scene – and the first act finale (CD 2 tr. 1) is a truly grand ensemble lasting 25 minutes. The chorus is also very much in the picture, all these ingredients make this a very varied score. The three central characters are naturally allotted a lot of exposure. Aureliano’s cavatina in the first act, Cara patria! with chorus (CD 1 tr. 7) is memorable, and so is, in possibly even higher degree, Zenobia’s big aria in the same act Lŕ pugnai, la sorte arise (CD 1 tr. 15) with quite a lot of florid singing. In the second act there are several big scenes. Scene No. 9 begins with a short recitative by Aureliano, followed by a duet between him and Zenobia, whereupon they are joined by Licinio and Publia to a quartet (CD 2 tr. 4-6). The following scene, No. 10, is even more composite. It begins with a long chorus (CD 2 tr. 7) where there is a long violin solo accompanied by plucked strings and then joined by the chorus. The scene is continued on CD 3, where we first hear the overture again, part of it, that is, then Arsace comes in, still accompanied by phrases from the overture, before he plunges into the aria Perché mai le luce aprimmo, one of the real highlights, rather generously decorated. The chorus enters together with a couple of minor roles and this leads over to Arsace’s virtuoso rondo, with echoes of the overture again. Another highlight is in Scene No. 12, the duet with Zenobia and Arsace, Mille sospiri e lagrime (CD 3 tr. 11) with plucked strings. Very beautiful. This scene is also on a grand scale, lasting more than 17 minutes. It can also be noted that there are some interesting orchestral effects, most palpable perhaps when he features the French horns.
The singing is by and large on a level with the music. Juan Francisco Gatell has an agreeable tenor that should be suitable also for Almaviva, a role he also has in his repertoire. His coloratura sits well (CD 3 tr. 8). Silvia Dalla Benetta’s soprano is powerful, vibrant and intense and her coloratura technique leaves little to be wished. Marina Viotti’s mezzo-soprano is also vibrant and strong and she has all the virtuosity required. Baurzhan Anderzhanov’s dark bass is also an asset in the role of the High Priest.
Conductor José Miguel Pérez-Sierra’s credentials as a Rossinian are impressive: he began his conducting career as assistant to Gabriele Ferro, studied with Gianluigi Gelmetti and was between 2004 and 2009 assistant to the doyen among Rossini conductors and scholars, Alberto Zedda. No one can question his tempo choices and the choral and orchestral forces don’t let him down. The recording is well-balanced and agreeable. There is applause but fairly little external noise.
This opera is valuable, not only as the source for later operas but also for the intrinsic qualities of the work itself. As for previous recordings there is a handful, from 1980 and later, the latest from 2012, on Opera Rara, which was positively reviewed by my colleague Robert Farr. I haven’t heard it but with names like Kenneth Tarver and Silvia Tro Santafé it should be a delight, which Robert also confirmed. That issue has full libretto with translations. There is also an even later version, a DVD from the Pesaro Festival in 2014, also reviewed by Robert. It is also starry cast with Michael Spyres and Jessica Pratt as Aureliano and Zenobia and there is 30 minutes more music than on either the Naxos or the Opera Rara sets, since the conductor of the set has gone to sources at other theatres where Rossini presented the opera and found music that was not used at the premiere. Possibly both these are preferable to the Naxos, but the Naxos is no ugly duckling in this company. It presents a worthy alternative and has a definitive price advantage. It costs about one third of the Opera Rara.
Price conscious readers can invest with confidence in the Naxos set without feeling too much regret.