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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Zelmira (1822) [155.10]
Cecilia Gasdia (soprano) - Zelmira; William Matteuzzi (tenor) - Ilio; Chris Merritt (tenor) - Antenore; Bernarda Fink (mezzo) - Emma; José Garcia (bass) - Polidoro; Boaz Senator (bass) - Leucippo; Vernon Midgley (tenor) - Eacide; Leslie Fyson (baritone) - High Priest of Jove
Ambrosian Singers; I Solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone
rec. Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, July 1989
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 64677-8 [77.03 + 77.07]

During the 1980s Claudio Scimone, the Rossini enthusiast and scholar, made a whole sheaf of recordings of rare Rossini operas for various labels. This was the penultimate of these issues, featuring the same three principals as in several other of these sets. It gave us the first studio reading of Rossini’s penultimate Italian opera - the last of the series of operas the composer wrote for Naples before his departure for Paris, during which he made a number of experiments with both the form and style of his music. Zelmira is an interesting work which, following its Naples première was performed in Vienna and London. Its subsequent neglect was undeserved, even though some of Rossini’s more interesting innovations in the score had already been anticipated in his earlier Naples operas. One example is the interruption of the orchestral prelude by the male chorus, a device which he had already employed in Ermione. The work has other parallels with that earlier work, being set similarly during the mythological period of the Trojan War. The equally neglected Ermione has been substantially rehabilitated during recent years, including a production at Glyndebourne; but it has the advantage of being based on a well-made adaptation by Andrea Leone Tottila of a play by Racine which has some real dramatic force. Zelmira has a plot, also adapted by Tottila, whose ridiculously convoluted back-history would make even Wagner at his most prolix hesitate. The main theme of the action is founded on a ridiculous farrago of false accusations and misunderstandings which make one totally lose patience with the wimpish behaviour of the two principals. Their total failure to communicate with each other about the most basic matters makes one fear for the future of their married relationship at the final curtain.
Nonetheless Rossini gave these two principals, and their fellow singers, some really good music to get their teeth into. There are some delightfully original touches too, such as the accompaniment for cor anglais and harp for Zelmira’s cavatina Perchè mi guardi (CD 1, track 16) and the skirling woodwind over the trombones in the Act One finale. Having said which, the best music of all is that written for the villainous Antenore who, not content with having usurped the throne of Lesbos and murdered his predecessor, now seeks to pin responsibility for his crimes on the innocent Zelmira and her gullible betrothed Ilio. The part was written for Andrea Nozzari, a tenor who had an extraordinary range which extended well into the baritone register. Rossini takes full advantage of this, writing passages for the voice which veer from the highest notes to the lowest with startling effect. The writing has a certain generic similarity to that for Mozart’s Fiordiligiin Così fan tutte. Having recently witnessed several unconvincing attempts by sopranos in the Cardiff Young Singer of the World to encompass that range in Come scoglio, one is not altogether surprised to find even a singer like Chris Merritt struggling to come to terms with the see-sawing vocal lines he is asked to attempt. Merritt’s baritonal lower notes oddly enough come off better than his high ones, which are not free of a degree of strain. Still, one wonders who else at the time of recording could even have attempted the part so convincingly.
By comparison, the parts for the two principals are fairly straightforward - if one means by this that they stick to their normal registers. Mind you, the register for William Matteuzzi as Ilio is very high indeed. It is creditable that he makes it all sound so easy and natural as he soars into the stratosphere. Cecilia Gasdia is also completely unfazed by all the difficulties in the title role, even though she is unable to make the character much more than the put-upon milksop she so clearly is. Bernarda Fink is superlative in the role of Zelmira’s confidante. José Garcia as the deposed King - who came in for some stick from earlier critics, notably in the Penguin Guide and Fanfare - seems to me to be quite adequate in what is after all a fairly small part. Boaz Senator is steadier in the other bass role of the villainous henchman. The other parts are mere ciphers, but the chorus and orchestra are assured and capable under the baton of Claudio Scimone. Despite some very fast speeds he seems to relish the discovery of the music and has clearly prepared the performance with care and understanding. The recording sessions had been preceded by concert performances in Venice, but Gasdia and Merritt had both sung their roles onstage in Rome earlier in the same year and their experience clearly shows.
There was an earlier recording of Zelmira conducted by Carlo Franci, but this made substantial cuts in the music. Here we are given a more complete edition edited by Scimone which also includes additional material written for Emma by Rossini for the Vienna production. This makes for two very full CDs and there is a very odd solution for the problem this creates with the break between the discs. The chorus which opens the Act One finale is given at the end of the first disc; the succeeding recitative for Antenore is then faded out as it begins. The second disc opens with a fade-in of the closing bars of the same chorus after which the recitative then continues normally. I note that David Johnson in Fanfare complained bitterly about this procedure in the original Erato release, suggesting that a clean break should have been made at the end of the chorus. On the other hand, the inevitable artificiality of getting up to change the CD would then have interrupted the continuity of the music no less disastrously. Given the evident desire to fit the whole opera onto two CDs, the Erato solution, reduplicated in this reissue, might be seen as the lesser of two evils. Not that I suspect the engineers at Warner even considered the matter when dealing with this reissue, which simply replicates the track layout of the original discs. The reissue completely omits the substantial booklet material - including an essay on the edition employed by Scimone - which came with the Erato release. This also contained the libretto in four languages. Instead we are given only a very basic cued synopsis which occupies a mere page and a half. It hardly helps the listener to come to terms with the plot - such as it is. By the way, I can find no trace of an original Greek myth on which the scenario is based. It seems to have been entirely the uninspired invention of the French playwright Dormont de Belloy (1727-75), otherwise known only for a later play on the subject of the siege of Calais.
The principal competition for this set comes from an absolutely complete 2004 recording for Opera Rara. However, it has to be said that the singing on that recording is generally rather less assured than in this Scimone issue. Bruce Ford is generally the equal of Merritt, although his lower register is weaker; but the reedy-voiced Antonio Siragusa totally lacks Matteuzzi’s ease with the high tessitura. Elisabeth Futral is no more able than Gasdia to make the character of Zelmira herself interesting. The main advantage of the Opera Rara set is that the recording is spread over three discs - a considerable amount of the additional playing time being required for applause from the enthusiastic audience at the live concert performance. This obviates the break in the Act One finale. Whether one will regard the acquisition of a third CD as sufficient warrant for preferring this may be debatable. There is a modern-dress production on DVD and Blu-Ray conducted by Roberto Abbado, which I have not seen; this needs no break to be made in the music, and the cast looks very interesting if the production is acceptable. Otherwise, this current reissue will do very nicely as a representative Zelmira for the library shelf. It is good to have it back in circulation despite the noted reservations.
Paul Corfield Godfrey