Opera Rara – Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira

Aureliano in Palmira – Dramma serio in two acts to a libretto by Felice Romani [concert performance; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Aureliano, Emperor of Rome – Kenneth Tarver
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra – Catriona Smith
Arsace, Prince of Persia – Silvia Tro Santafé
Publia, daughter of the Emperor Valeriano – Ezgi Kutlu
Licinio, a tribune – Vuyani Mlinde
High Priest of Isis – Andrew Foster-Williams
Oraspe, general of the Palmyrean forces – Julian Alexander Smith

Geoffrey Mitchell Choir

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Maurizio Benini

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 23 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

2010 is a landmark year for Opera Rara: the fortieth anniversary of its first public outing, a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of operatic excerpts by composers of the early nineteenth-century who were either virtually forgotten (such as Mayr and Pacini) or, in the case of Meyerbeer, at that time despised. The first complete opera recording, Donizetti’s “Ugo, Conte di Parigi”, followed soon after, and to date more than fifty (mostly bel canto) operas have been rescued from what would have been without Opera Rara certain oblivion. The system has undergone several changes over the years. Opera sets were initially offered on subscription to what was then and largely still is, a niche market. Stagings at the Camden Festival are still fondly remembered.

Opera Rara continued to make studio recordings but lost visibility until in the 1990s it developed a more progressive marketing structure, which included making available its back catalogue. One idea to maximise the value of its assets involved giving an annual concert performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra of the opera which had just been recorded in the studio. This is a showcase for the coming recording and allows the musicians, especially the singers, to present their coherent interpretation of the whole work.

Casting at the time of the project’s inauguration mainly involved young British singers, which became more international as time went on. The emergence of a number of ‘house’ singers – notably the dramatic coloratura soprano Nelly Miricioiu and the tenore di grazia Bruce Ford, who could encompass the technical difficulties of the leading roles in the newly discovered operas and breath dramatic life into them – ensured the growing reputation of the label and no doubt made it easier to attract star-names such as Jennifer Larmore and Renée Fleming. Joint-founder Patric Schmid favoured emerging young voices and was good at identifying those who possessed the ability to sing the extremely demanding music of these works. No doubt singers in the early stages of their careers were also more willing to add to their CV works which they would only perform once. Opera Rara has survived the early death of both co-founders, Don White and Patric Schmid and now is in the hands of MD Stephen Revell, who plans to maintain the organisation’s founding principles but also to broaden its horizons. Further rare works from the Italian and French repertory are slated for recording, with as yet undefined excursions into other neglected areas.

The generous financial support of the Peter Moores Foundation has been indispensable in the progress and continuity of Opera Rara’s work for the last thirty-five years but this is now ending and Revell is seeking new sources of funding. To be associated with a cultural product of such high quality ought to attract corporate sponsorship. The large attendance at such concert performances as this also confirms the existence of a loyal group of like-minded private supporters.

Rossini is not a composer who has required as much advocacy from Opera Rara as some of his contemporaries but “Aureliano in Palmira” incurred the wrath of the critics at its premiere at La Scala, Milan in December 1813 and had fallen into obscurity within less than twenty years. It has been revived twice since 1980 and live recordings have been published, so this was no exhumation; nevertheless, casting it strongly with bel canto specialists does at least test the justice of its long neglect. The Rossini expert Richard Osborne has described “Aureliano in Palmira” as a “chamber opera” and points out that in Act Two Rossini plays down the militaristic, heroic elements in favour of a prolonged depiction of pastoral contentment. The presence of a mere three major characters goes some way towards supporting the first assertion. As for the second, the action opens with war raging and continues with two further episodes of hostility, all three principals make bellicose pronouncements, and Maurizio Benini encouraged the gentlemen of the Geoffrey Mitchell Singers to fearsome outbursts of aggression and vengefulness, in particular whipping up all on the platform to a grandstand finish to the Act One finale. At the same time full justice was done to the pastoral scene, the excellent chorus this time expressing pacifism and satisfaction with a rural lifestyle in a particularly beautiful passage in which its music is surmounted by delightful woodwind interjections. The andante of Arsace’s aria here acknowledges the purity of mutual love in music of warmth and sweetness otherwise unequalled in the score but the spell is immediately broken in the allegro as the hero embarks once again on his martial duty.

As Arsace, Silvia Tro Santafé gave a performance reminiscent of the great Marilyn Horne. She possesses a voice as rarely heard as that of the now-retired American, a rich baritonal sound in the chest register matched by secure, thrillingly taut top notes. It is a mighty voice but immensely flexible. In the cabaletta just mentioned her vocal skills were epitomised by a spectacular plunging scale which led to a prolonged ovation as the scene concluded. But equally impressive was the way she had brought out the constant nobility of the character and always remained sympathetic. In the ‘prison aria’ in Act One she drew out the tenderness and regret associated with Arsace’s love for the queen and his sense of loss, softening the reprise to a touching pianissimo. The mezzo’s skilled singing and sensitive characterisation established Arsace as the most interesting character in the opera.

There are three duets between Arsace and his beloved Zenobia, Queen of Palmira. The first is, unusually, the first number after the opening establishing choral scene. Santafé’s way with the integral trills in her part was admirable but her sheer vocal power presented problems of balance with her soprano partner, certain notes booming out prominently. Fortunately by the time of their second duet ‘Va, m’abbandona’ the problem had vanished and their joyful reunion in Act Two was a highlight of the evening.

Catriona Smith, replacing the originally announced Annick Massi as Zenobia, came with a good pedigree, a Kammersängerin of the Stuttgart State Opera with almost twenty years in that company behind her. Mostly impeccable in her fioriture, she failed to embody the stature of the Palmyran queen, a role which requires a true diva; her voice lacked distinctive character, her production was backward, the tone quality rather opaque.

Kenneth Tarver cut an imposing figure as the Roman emperor but seemed not to be in best voice. Though his singing was elegant and the tone mellifluous in the middle, notes around the top of the stave clouded over uneasily, making his phrases uneven. Emerging into the blue sky above G his attack was by contrast scrupulously, indeed excitingly clean. His characterisation was somewhat one-dimensional and he wasn’t entirely convincing in conveying the emperor’s dilemma in his relationship with Zenobia. It is a pity that the duet between Aureliano and Zenobia, which portrays the softer side of each character’s nature, should be musically conventional.

The minor parts were taken by strongly-defined voices, their music vividly characterised. Ezgi Kutlu and Vuyani Mlinde are already embarked on promising careers. Exits and entrances were managed with decorum or urgency as appropriate but there was little interaction between characters. Benini frequently shone light on Rossini’s finely-drawn orchestral effects. The virtuoso horn obbligato in Aureliano’s cavatina ‘Cara patria!’ was thrillingly played, while the support of the violins and the first oboe in Arsace’s aria belied the caricature of Rossini as a facile composer.

If seeking reasons for the initial failure of “Aureliano in Palmira” other than the context of the triumphs with “Tancredi” and “L’Italiana in Algeri” which Rossini had enjoyed earlier in 1813, one need hardly look further than the treatment of the character of Publia (who is secretly in love with Arsace) and the final pages of the opera. Publia is reduced to a cipher and the opportunity lost for greater dramatic interest. There is a point in Act One where she is denied an aria at one appearance when both theatrical and musical logic seem to demand one. Instead she is fobbed off with what is basically an aria di sorbetto (a posthumous insult to the excellent Kutlu), placed ineptly immediately after the sublime trio ‘Ah! perche mai quell’ anime’ (in an obscure recording from the early 1990s it is repositioned earlier in the Act). Aureliano’s act of clemency is then rushed through and the opera ends with one of those ensembles where each of the leading characters gets the chance to sing a jolly tune. Suitable for opera buffa but something more dignified was needed to match the morally upright message which ends this drama.

Not an unjustly neglected masterpiece, then, but certainly a vehicle for a star mezzo – and Silvia Tro Santafé ought to play a major part in the new era which is now beginning for the estimable organisation that is Opera Rara.

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