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Aureliano in Palmira
C. Smith, Kutlu, Tro Santafé; Tarver, Alexander Smith, Mlinde, Foster-Williams; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, Benini. Texts and translations. Opera Rara in association with Peter Moores Foundation ORC 46 (3)
Opera Rara's fortieth anniversary, in 2010, was marked by a concert performance of Rossini's dramma serioAureliano in Palmira, released here in a handsome three-CD set accompanied by a booklet featuring an excellent essay by Richard Osborne. The twenty-one-year-old Rossini composed this tale of love and war in imperial Rome in 1813, a year that also saw the premieres of his Il Signor Bruschino, L'Italiana in Algeri and Tancredi. Critics saw Aureliano as wanting — especially as compared to the rapturously received Tancredi — and it fell into obscurity from 1830 until a revival in 1980, in Genoa. The opera's decline was also accelerated by the success of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, in which Rossini recycled significant parts of Aureliano, most notably the overture, which seems a much better fit in a raucous comedy than in a dramma serio set in ancient Rome.
Aureliano concerns the struggles between the Roman Emperor Aurelian and Zenobia, Queen of Palmira, who sought to expand her empire by encroaching on Roman territories. Rossini adds to these actual historical figures the invented character of Arsace, Zenobia's lover and heroic soldier. Aureliano himself is smitten by Zenobia's charms, and the opera centers on the principal characters' conflicts between loyalty to empire and loyalty to love. After all the battles, escapes and furious jealousies, the opera ends happily as Aureliano frees the captives Zenobia and Arsace, who pledge eternal fealty to Rome.
There is much to be enjoyed here. The two Zenobia–Arsace love duets, Act I's "Se tu m'ami, o mia regina" and Act II's "Mille sospiri e lagrime," are meltingly beautiful and show how the youthful Rossini was able to create emotional landscapes that reflected the development of character. There is also stirring and patriotic music, including Aureliano's cavatina "Cara patria! Il mondo trema," which begins with a gloriously played horn obbligato. But perhaps the most moving music is "O care selva," the exquisite pastoral chorus in Act II, in which shepherds and shepherdesses sing of their love for the tranquil rural life they live. While this passage is one of quiet joy, it presages in its beauty and dignity the great Verdi choruses to come later in the nineteenth century.
Kenneth Tarver employs his light lyric tenor to great effect in the title role. He tosses off the high-flying role with ease and purity of tone, though one might wish for a bit more vocal heft in his jealous rages. Without question, the vocal honors here go to the Arsace, mezzo Silvia Tro Santafé, who contributes a fearless and virtuoso performance that is both fiery and passionate, finding many vocal colors and nuances that illuminate character and emotion. Soprano Catriona Smith, as Zenobia, does very well in the love duets but fails to register as a convincing warrior queen; her fierce aria "Là pugnai, la sorte arrise" makes little impression. In smaller roles, Ezgi Kutlu is lovely in the underwritten role of Publia, and Andrew Foster-Williams is a sonorous High Priest.
Maurizio Benini leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a sensitive yet propulsive reading, though he makes little case for the more repetitive, less inspired sections of the score.
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