Rossini Opera Festival (2): Plagiarism Contra Provincialism

ItalyItalyROF (2) Rossini, Aureliano in Palmira.   Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna, Chorus Master Andrea Faidutti; Conductor, Will Crutchfield, who is also the Research Editor of the new performing edition of the Fondazione Rossini, Teatro Rossini, Pesaro.  18.9.2014. (JB)

Aureliano in Palmira: Lena Belkina (Arsace) with Jessica Pratt (Zenobia) (c) ROF

Cast (Principals):
Aureliano –Michael Spyres;
Queen Zenobia –Jessica Pratt and
Prince Arsace–Lena Belkina

Staging by Mario Martone
Sets by Sergio Tramonti,
Costumes by Ursula Patzak,
Lighting by Pasquale Mari.

Rossini raised self-plagiarism into a glorious, creative art-form.  Not to mention, an industry.  This is all inextricably bound up with his unique sense of humour, his unrivalled knowledge of the singing voice and its opportunities and his most remarkable composition technique.  The Fondazione Rossini has just researched and published the critical performing edition of Aureliano in Palmira under the admiral editorship of Will Crutchfield, who was also the edition’s midwife in the sense that he also conducted the performances of this revival at the ROF.

Rossini subsequently mined this opera for material for many others.  The problem is that we are now hearing these operas backwards.  I couldn’t help bursting out laughing aloud when the Prince of Persia in Aureliano , at the opera’s most tragic moment, sings a variant of Rosina’s una voce poco fa.  The French critic next to met was puzzled and aghast.  It took him some minutes to see the unintended “joke”.  But of course it was Rosina’s aria that was the variant.  See what I mean by hearing things backwards?

Aureliano in Palmira  is a masterpiece on various levels, as I shall try to show.

It had its premiere on 26 December 1813 at a provincial theatre in Milan by the name of La Scala.  Seriously.  It was only at the end of the nineteenth century with the rise of verismo that La Scala began to acquire a name beyond the borders of Italy.  The unquestionable world-leader of opera presentation in Rossini’s youth was the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.  And in 1813 Rossini had not yet become its Artistic Director and Principal Conductor.  Earlier that year he had had a triumph at La Fenice in Venice (not a provincial theatre; it was second only to the San Carlo) with Tancredi.  But the understandable provincialism of the Milanese critic at Aureliano’s premiere (they slammed it since they were without references to make comparisons) has sometimes been held responsible for the opera’s subsequent neglect.

All this has changed with the ROF’s outstanding cast.  With Mario Martone’s staging and Will Crutchfield’s conducting.  Provincialism be damned.  One can almost hear the composer chortling with delight.

Aureliano’s overture makes two subsequent appearances: (1) before the curtain rises on Elizabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (1815) and (2) before the opera which would later become known as Il Barbiere di Siviglia  (1816).  Probably with some regard for our being about to receive a semi-seria opera, Maestro Crutchfield takes the overture somewhat slower than that we are used to.  Shocking.  Stodgy and laboured  came into my mind.  But I then realised that this was an invitation to hear the familiar in an unfamiliar way.  A bold try, maestro.  And it nearly worked.  But I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who fell short of the maestro’s challenge.

The action is set in and around Palmira around 271CE.  The Romans are invading Palmira and Emperor Aureliano (Michael Spyres) is at their gates; the beautiful Palmira Queen Zenobia (Jessica Pratt) is in love with her ally, the Persian Prince, Arsace (Lena Belkina) but between them they are unable to defeat the Romans.  Aureliano asks for Zenobia’s hand as part of a truce.  All of which affords Rossini unlimited opportunities to explore the complexities of love –political and otherwise.

Mario Martone has the distinction of being born in the Mecca of Opera Production –Naples-as well as being a musician of profound insights. His stagings share the most outstanding qualities of Lucchino Visconti’s: whenever the music dictates that the action must be stilled, it is almost always poetically frozen; whenever musical dictates direct action there is always appropriate action.  Would that all opera’s directors were so musical.

As usual there is restraint in this production.  Never any danger of action getting in the way of the music.  There is a preponderance of greys and blacks in Sergio Tramonti’s sets which suggest  rather than dominate the period.  And so too with Ursula Patzak’s respectful period costumes.

This was also Rossini’s first opera where he explored patriotic sentiments.  And how successfully!  The chorus of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna –admirably prepared by Andrea Faidutti- were at their most moving in the pastorale scene at the beginning of the second act.  Rossini is the perfect composer to portray innocence responding to violence and with distinctive help from the ROF  team he does this perfectly.  The libretto calls for shepherds but in this production they become goatherds and wives.  The foothills of Pesaro have more goats than sheep.  I’d always heard that goats are untrainable.  Mr Martone found otherwise.  He found a young goatherd  who then donned a costume and fed his charges as they were choreographed across the stage to the accompaniment of the chorus.  Enchanting!

The role of Prince Arsace was written for the great castrato, Gianbattista Velluti (the only time Rossini wrote for this voice).  Anyone who has heard the Moreschi recordings will know that the castrato voice is powerful to the point of being piercing as well as expressive in the most unexpected way. The ROF had Lena Belkina.  She is from Uzbekistan and in possession of the aforementioned three attributes; especially so in her unusual and profoundly moving expressive passages.  Talk about the ability to think yourself into a role!  She did so in a way I would have thought impossible.  The voice is heavy but becomes lighter at will –then  -and here comes the surprise which is a challenge to my use of English-  the lightness itself transmutes into a unique powerful darkness.

Stendhal had been smitten in Paris when he heard a concert performance of the Act One Arsace / Zenobia duet .se mi’ l’ama O mia regina.  Declaring it the greatest of all Rossini’s duets.  A pity he couldn’t have been in Pesaro for the same duet.  Or even better, for the Act Two duet for the same pair –se libertà t’è cara– One of the most thrilling operatic performances I have heard.

That brings me to the Queen herself.  Jessica Pratt gets better, every time I hear her.  She was totally involved in this demanding role: passionate, sure-footed at every move including the monstrously difficult coloratura where every i  was dotted and every t crossed.  In the extended recitativi secchi she cherished every word she delivered.  She was much aided here by the continuo players Lucy Tucker Yates (fortepiano) and David Etheve (cello) whom Martone had thoughtfully incorporated into his intelligent stage action.

Michael Spyres was perfectly cast as  Aureliano.  His voice is authoritative, as befits the Emperor –firm and secure but at the same time, shot through with some remarkably warm vocal colours which precisely express the predicaments in which he finds himself.  A good deal of  Rossini thought  went into the creation of this role.  And a good deal of musical intelligence into Michael Spyres’s performance of it.

Jack Buckley

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