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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Aureliano in Palmira - dramma serio in two acts (1813)
Aureliano, Emperor of Rome - Michael Spyres (tenor); Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra in love with Arsace - Jessica Pratt (soprano); Arsace, Prince of Persia - Lena Belkina (mezzo); Publio, daughter of Valeriano, secretly in love with Arsace - Raffaela Lupinacci (mezzo); Oraspe, general of the Palmyran forces - Dempsey Rivera (tenor); Licinio, a tribune - Sergio Vitale (bass); High Priest of Isis - Dimitri Pkhaladze (bass-baritone)
Chorus of the Teatro Communale di Bologna
Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini/Will Crutchfield
Performed in the Critical Edition by Will Crutchfield for the Fondazione Rossini
rec. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, Italy, August 2014 Rossini Opera Festival
Stage Director: Mario Martone; Set designer: Sergio Tramonti; Costume designer: Ursula Patzak; Video Director: Daniele Biggiero
Sound formats: PCM stereo, dts-Master Audio 5.1.
Picture format: 16:9
Introductory essay and synopsis: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Japanese, Korean.
Also available in DVD format on Arthaus 109073
ARTHAUS Blu-ray 109074 [201:00 + 14:00 (bonus)]

Aureliano in Palmira comes in as number 12 in Rossini's thirty-nine operatic titles. It opened the 1813-14 La Scala, Milan Carnival Season, on 26 December 1813.

Eighteen-thirteen was generally a fabulous year for Rossini. He had seen three of his earlier works reach the stage including the highly successful Tancredi (see DVD review) and L'Italiana in Algeri (see bargain CD with Marilyn Horne and the 2013 Pesaro updated production on DVD). These works projected Rossini to the forefront of Italian opera composers and led to his being summoned, in only his twenty-first year, to Naples by the influential impresario Barbaja. There he was offered the position of Music Directorship of the Royal Theatres of that city, the San Carlo and the Fondo. Barbaja's proposals appealed to Rossini for several reasons. Foremost, his annual fee was generous and guaranteed. Also the San Carlo had a professional orchestra unlike the theatres of Venice and Rome. The composer saw this situation as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of opera composition in more adventurous directions.

Whatever Rossini's earlier successes of 1813, Aureliano in Palmira received only a modest welcome in Milan and this despite the management of La Scala lavishing generous resources on the new opera. The composer blamed this poor response on the singers. This related particularly to 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 later to write several roles for David at the San Carlo. Also, Rossini had to deal with the temperamental castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti who he had earlier heard alongside the Spanish Isabella Colbran, who in Naples was to become Verdi's mistress and later his wife. However, by the time of Aureliano in Palmira, Velluti, it seems, was more preening prima donna than vocal superstar. The role of Arsace, written specifically for Velluti, was the only one Rossini ever composed for this voice-type. Despite the work's modest reception in Milan, Aureliano in Palmira played throughout Italy, and as far away as London, until at least 1830. Its story, and perhaps the regular borrowings of the music in which Rossini indulged, including the overture in another two of his operas, saw its ultimate fall into neglect. Later performances transferred the role of Arsace, created by Velluti, to a mezzo or contralto en travesti.

With no autograph surviving, scholar-cum-conductor Will Crutchfield, author of the critical edition used in this performance, has gone to sources at other theatres where Rossini presented the opera and found music that was not used at the premiere. In fact that there is another thirty minutes or so music compared with the Opera Rara recording of 2012 (see review). The brief booklet essay does not elaborate on this issue. We can only speculate that some of the music was missed from the premiere because of Giovanni David's non-availability and the vocal limitations of his replacement. However, it should also be recognised that the additional material gives extra cohesion to the plot, particularly in the duets, whilst also, it seems to me, some longueurs.

The plot is set in 272 AD in the ancient city of Palmyra, modern Syria. I am thankful that Pesaro has not followed its frequent practice of updating to the present at least in respect of costumes and armaments. Although togas are notable by their absence there are plenty of breastplates and swords as well as the peasants being appropriately attired in period. The story relates how the queen, Zenobia, and her lover, the Persian general Arsace, are defeated in battle by the Roman Emperor Aureliano who agrees to free Arsace if Zenobia will give herself to him; she refuses. Eventually, Aureliano is won over by the lovers' devotion, freeing them when they pledge loyalty to Rome. Such pacifism is much like Mozart's Tito, somewhat imaginary and more to do with the requirement for lieto fine, or happy ending, as was the contemporary requirement in Italian opera at that time. What might have been the reality then is shown in the projections on the back wall in the final scene.

The sets perhaps reflect two things. First the limitations of the budget and also of the size of the theatre stage. The stage is extended over the orchestra pit necessitating the placing of the keyboard continuo on-stage throughout, albeit with lighting often limiting its visual intrusion. Mario Martone, the imaginative producer, has the soloist joining in the action from time to time, but not in an excessive or gimmicky way. He also introduces some well-behaved goats to back-up the pastoral chorus (CH.49). The other parts of the set consist of translucent short-height vertical sheets that are flown so as to create entrances, prison walls, cells and the like. The stepladders used as Zenobia is dressed in her finery on her chariot are also somewhat incongruous. Above all, and despite some visual limitations it all works, unlike, I must add, some high budget Regietheater efforts in more moneyed theatres and festivals in northern Europe.

Two further factors are important to the success of this enterprise. First, the conductor Crutchfield's grasp of the fact that Rossini self-plagiarised some of the music, particularly the overture in the buffa Il Barbiere. He nevertheless subtly brings out differences of emphasis, tempi and dynamic for this opera drama or seria. This is also evident in other places where the commonality of tunes between the two works is present. The second factor to contribute to the success of this first series of performances ever of the work at this festival is the quality of the singing and the acting of the soloists and chorus. The eponymous title role is sung by the American Michael Spyres. Sometimes referred to as a 'baritenor', his tone is distinctly lyric with a good lower extension and, most important for Rossini's writing for the role, the ability to go up to E without sounding as if he is having his throat cut (CH.53). Add excellent acting, his facial expressions, the manner he bestrides the stage and his interpretation is as good as it gets. Jessica Pratt matches his histrionic and vocal ability in her third consecutive year in a major role at the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival. In between she has been singing the likes of Violetta and Lucia and at notable operatic addresses. She is very tall and might even be described as statuesque. She acts with her body, eyes and voice to create a moving and involved Queen Xenobia - and her coloratura is exemplary. I'm glad I caught her at the 2010 Garsington Festival in the UK premiere of Rossini's Armida (review). She is a major talent in the coloratura repertoire and delivers at La Scala, but has made only a fleeting visit to Covent Garden and not yet at the Met. That she was born in England and brought up in Australia has led to premature talk about Pratt as a successor to Sutherland. Such talk is unfair although her skills in this repertoire are currently as good as they get. The third principal, Lena Belkina harks from Uzbekistan. She has a warm-toned mezzo and a good lower extension with occasional lapses of intonation. I couldn't help thinking what Ewa Podles would make of this role whilst accepting that her age would make her a non-starter as a believable lover of this Queen. It is a big sing and Belkina is a singer of much promise who delivers here as well.

All the minor roles are more than adequately taken with Raffaela Lupinacci as Publio, secretly in love with Arsace, a visual delight as well as singing with good expression and tone. Dimitri Pkhaladze as the High Priest of Isisis is tuneful but I would have liked to have had the sonority of a full bass such as is found in Il Barbiere.

The sound and the picture quality are excellent.

Robert J Farr


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