Rossini Opera Festival 2023 – Aureliano in Palmira – with Alexey Tatarintsev, Sara Blanch & Raffaelle Lupinacci; directed by Mario Martone; conducted by George Petrou

Aureliano in Palmira – opera in two Acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Felice Romani [sung in Italian with Italian and English surtitles]

Aureliano – Alexey Tatarintsev
Zenobia – Sara Blanch
Arsace – Raffaella Lupinacci
Publia – Marta Pluda
Oraspe – Sunnyboy Dladla
Licinio – Davide Giangregorio
Gran Sacerdote – Alessandro Abis
Un Pastore – Elcin Adil

Chorus of the Teatro della Fortuna

Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini
Georges Petrou

Mario Martone – Director
Sergio Tramonti – Designer
Ursula Patzak – Costumes
Pasquale Mari – Lighting

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 August, 2023
Venue: Vitrifrigo Arena, Pesaro, Italy

Aureliano in Palmira (1813) is probably remembered – when at all – for the fact that its Overture was reused by Rossini for The Barber of Seville. Here that now ubiquitous extract is more properly integrated into the opera, however, since the material of the Overture’s two principal sections recurs within two separate scenes. But otherwise the work shares little in common with that ebullient comedy as, essentially, an opera seria in a more developed form with quite extended, slow-moving tableaux, and with a prominent part originally written for a castrato (Arsace, taken here by mezzo-soprano Raffaella Lupinacci with impressive vocal variety, blossoming from a sort of moody, male countertenor depth to a more lucid and sprightly register later in the work).

On the surface Mario Martone’s production is simple and allows the audience to become immersed in the characters’ personal drama and the score, which sets the story of the love triangle between Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, her lover Arsace the Persian prince who comes to her aid when the Roman Emperor Aurelian comes to subdue Syria, and the latter who also falls in love with Zenobia. It’s a largely traditional presentation – the Syrians appear in colourful headdresses and Middle Eastern costumes, and the Romans in typical imperial uniform, with a goading tribune in toga among them, all more or less as they would have appeared in the theatre of Rossini’s time. A few well-behaved goats are even brought on to lend a note of realism in Act Two’s pastoral scene. Elsewhere, a more abstract geometrical arrangement of sheets of fabric are suspended to form little cells on the stage in a maze-like distribution, although there is no hint of the distinctive Palmyrene architectural and decorative patterns which became such a stylistic influence in eighteenth-century Europe.

But the presence of a fortepiano on the stage, used to accompany the recitatives, signals with surprising subtlety – though quite intentionally – that something is up and draws attention to the artifice of such a musical or theatrical performance, rather than a real historical narrative within the opera as such. Hana Lee’s effective elaborations of the recitatives’ basic chord sequences on the keyboard make it seem that she is knowingly making music with the singers in an intimate, drawing room setting. The concept is clarified in the concluding coro as the soloists and chorus together face the audience directly and challenge what might be our unthinking acceptance of its perfunctory moral at face value. That message is ironised by distancing the singers behind a translucent gauze across the stage, while the text beamed onto the curtain below the surtitles refers to Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism to make the point that, in reality, Zenobia didn’t accept any magnanimous and merciful decision by the Emperor to release her and Arsace if they swore loyalty to Rome (as per the libretto) but was taken to Rome as a captive. It thereby neatly critiques the opera’s reuse of a narrative about an episode of Middle Eastern history told from a self-promoting, Western perspective, without undermining the integrity of Rossini’s setting.

Alexey Tatarintsev is in robust voice as the preening Aureliano who strides on in his first appearance to gloat about his conquering of Syria. He maintains full command of the virtuosic writing, achieving even the (not infrequent) high notes with heft from the chest and hold their own over the chorus when these forces come together. He meets his match, however, in Sara Blanch’s often forceful account of Zenobia, but she colours her performance with more beguiling charisma to express the emotional power she has over the Emperor as well as Arsace.

The small parts vary – Marta Pluda and Sunnyboy Dladla offer idiomatic accounts of Publia and Oraspe respectively, but Davide Giangregorio and Alessandro Abis are more foursquare as Licinio and the High Priest respectively, although the perfunctory text of the latter’s sole aria hardly inspires lively characterisation vocally or gesturally.

George Petrou attends to the shades and colours of the music, with the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini, despite slightly weak beginnings to the trumpet and horn solos in a couple of numbers, but they settle down. If ensemble is sometimes inexact, Petrou brings something of the same lean energy of the Baroque repertoire with which he is more frequently associated, so that there is purposeful direction during the slow working out of Rossini’s score without pressing it hard. The Chorus of the Teatro della Fortuna are not overly bold, but they create a stirring climax in the Act One finale, which works up the boisterous theme of the famous Overture. In all, this is an efficient and sharp production of a potentially sprawling work, holding the attention right up to the end when the dramaturgical rug is enthrallingly pulled from under the feet to make the audience reappraise its attitude to the work’s themes.

Further performances to August 21

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