A First-Rate Serious Opera by Rossini with Pre-Echoes of The Barber of Seville

Another good-to-superb recording of a little-known Rossini opera, thanks to the Rossini in Wildbad festival. The recording blends three concert performances from July 2017 and features Silvia Dalla Benetta as Zenobia, Princess of Palmyra. (That renowned ancient city was located in what is today Syria. Its long surviving ruins were partly destroyed by ISIS in 2015 and are now being reconstructed.)

Aureliano in Palmira (1813) is often mentioned in the Rossini literature, because Rossini reused its overture, slightly reworked, in Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (1815) and then in Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816). The overture, I was surprised to discover, belongs most integrally to Aureliano: its closing section returns, interestingly reworked, in voices and orchestra, to make an exciting conclusion to Act 1. Also, the overture’s long, slow introduction is heard again as the introduction to a pensive aria for Arsace (Zenobia’s beloved) in the middle of Act 2, when he is alone in the countryside.

Aureliano in Palmira
Gioachino Rossini: Aureliano in Palmira

The overture was not the only item that Rossini reused later. The opening chorus lent material to Almaviva’s first solo in Barbiere (”Ecco ridente il cielo”). And, almost more striking, Arsace’s cabaletta in Act 2 (“Non lasciarmi”) got adapted and expanded as Rosina’s Act 1 cabaletta in Barbiere: “Io sono docile” (again, after being re-used first in Elisabetta).

The excellent booklet essay by Bernd-Rüdiger Kern explains that, at least in the case of the borrowings from Aureliano in the two later works, Rossini was not salvaging music that had failed: Aureliano was in fact performed widely in northern Italy for two decades. Perhaps Rossini was simply short of time or – in the case of the choral tune that he, three years later, reused for Almaviva – reworking, in a playful spirit, material that he recognized was particularly catchy.

Aureliano, in two nicely full acts, is notable for its many duets and larger ensembles and its accompanied recitatives (though there is also still some recitative accompanied by keyboard). In all these respects, it shows Rossini on the path that would lead to the remarkably inventive operas that he would compose for Naples some years later – a path that would be followed by Donizetti, Bellini, and the young Verdi.

Aureliano is also notable for including the only castrato role that Rossini ever wrote, namely Arsace, prince of Persia. (This Arsace is not to be confused with Arsace, son of the Babylonian heroine in Rossini’s later opera Semiramide.) The three multi-movement duets for soprano and castrato (the latter role is here sung by a mezzo-soprano) provide numerous opportunities for the mellifluous singing in thirds and sixths that form one of the great glories of early-nineteenth-century Italian opera, generally. There is also a wonderful quartet, and, later, a trio for the nervy heroine and the two men fighting over her: Arsace and Aureliano.

The basic plot involves two lovers, Zenobia and Arsace, whom the Roman conqueror Aureliano imprisons in order to have Zenobia for himself. (In the January/February issue of American Record Guide I reviewed an interesting, if uneven, recording of a 1790 Paisiello opera on the same story: Zenobia in Palmira.) There is a Baroque-style happy ending, whereby Aureliano gives up Zenobia to Arsace and, in exchange, the lovers pledge fealty to Rome. (Rossini sets this as a vaudeville-style number, with each of the characters singing the same jolly tune, one after the other, as in numerous comic operas, such as Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.)

Kern’s booklet essay argues that the opera may have been conceived (and received) as a tribute to Napoleon and his chosen representative in northern Italy, his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais. Indeed, the essay can be read as a worthy codicil to the recent book by Warren Roberts, Rossini and Post-Napoleonic Europe (University of Rochester Press), which focuses on other Rossini operas and mentions Aureliano only in passing. (I had a hand in getting Roberts’s book published, but it has been much praised by noted authorities so I feel free to mention it.)

Special mention should be made of the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses in Act 2. Its gentle lyricism seems Bellinian, two decades too early. This provides further proof of the debt that the next generation owed to Rossini’s style or, rather, his many styles. The chorus’s words also seem prophetic, voicing a desire for “freedom” from foreign oppression that would recur in Rossini’s own L’Italiana in Algeri and Guillaume Tell, in Bellini’s Norma, and of course in much early Verdi.

Fortunately, the performances give a good sense of what the work has to offer. I admired Dalla Benetta greatly in the “Rossini in Wildbad” recording of Bellini’s first professionally staged opera, Bianca e Gernando (see my review here). On this occasion she is just as riveting and accomplished, summoning up great strength and solidity of tone when standing up to the tyrannical Aureliano. The voice displays a mild wobble on some sustained tones, but of course this is not a studio recording, where one can do extra takes.

Dalla Benetta is surrounded by a cast ranging from fully adequate to superb. Marina Viotti does a generally splendid job incarnating the castrato role of the brave Persian warrior Arsace. I found the voice a bit thick during florid passagework, and she, too, wobbles on some long notes. Still, the effect is probably more convincing musically and dramatically than if a countertenor had been used.

Viotti’s voice and Dalla Benetta’s are so similar (except for range) that I had to pay close attention in order to distinguish them when not following the libretto. Listening on earphones clarified things because of the singers’ positions on stage.

Juan Francisco Gatell is bright and clean as the selfish invader from Rome. But he blares on two high notes in Act 3 that he surely could have taken softly and eloquently. The desire to show off often produces the opposite effect, as our wise grandparents used to advise.

I wish the cast list had identified the lovely baritone who sings a few lines as the Shepherd in Act 2.

The Czech (specifically: Moravian-based) orchestra and Polish chorus are alert and responsive, with only occasional small glitches (and some appreciative applause) revealing that the recording was made during concert performances. The Spanish-born conductor moves things along smartly, yet also yields affectionately and phrases sensitively. His solo horn player excels in a long scene-setting melody in Act 2.

In the recitatives, the fortepiano sometimes doesn’t sound very well tuned, but its player is very involved and helped me stay interested, as did the three main singers, who all clearly understand what they are singing. (The two women are Italians; Gatell is from Argentina.) The sound is remarkably clear and well balanced – a triumph of microphone placement and post-performance mixing!

The CD set is relatively inexpensive. Subscribers to various streaming services such as Spotify have automatic access to it, the individual tracks are publicly available on YouTube, and anyone can download the booklet and libretto for free from Naxos.com. One can hear the beginning of each track here.

There have been at least two previous commercial recordings (with Ezio di Cesare and Kenneth Tarver, respectively, as Aureliano), probably as fine as this one. And I see various pirated ones on YouTube at the moment.

There is also a DVD (with Jessica Pratt and Michael Spyres) whose musical values have been much praised. Its conductor is the eminent conductor-scholar Will Crutchfield. OperaToday readers may recall an appreciative review, by Michael Milenski, of that very production. (A second DVD also exists, from the Valle d’Itria Festival.)

Still, the new recording is certainly the cheapest way to get to know this rich work, aside from trying some pirated version (perhaps with problematic sound quality) on YouTube. If Naxos’s libretto had included an English translation, not just the Italian, I’d have urged its purchase more emphatically. But at least the synopsis is helpfully detailed and includes well-placed track numbers. The performances used an edition by Ian Schofield; a few words would have been helpful about what decisions were made (cuts? choices between alternative versions of certain numbers?).

Ralph P. Locke[*]

Gioachino Rossini: Aureliano in Palmira
Silvia Dalla Benetta (Zenobia), Ana Victoria Pitts (Publia), Marina Viotti (Arsace), Juan Francisco Gatell (Aureliano), Xiang Xu (Oraspe), Zhiyuan Chen (Licinio), Baurzhan Anderzhanov (High Priest). Virtuosi Brunensis, Poznan Camerata Bach Choir, cond. José Miguel Pérez-Sierra.
Naxos 8.660448-50 [3 CDs] 167 minutes

Above: The ruins of Palmyra [Source: Wikipedia]


[*]Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book. His reviews appear in various online magazines, including The Arts FuseNewYorkArts, Naxos Musicology International (for subscribers to Naxos Music Library), and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.