Demetrio e Polibio
Moreno, Zaytseva; Shi, Palazzi; Prague Chamber Choir, Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini, Rovaris. Production: Livermore. Arthaus Musik 101 647 (DVD), 115 mins. (opera), 14 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Demetrio e Polibio was Rossini's first opera, written during his late teens but not performed till 1812, when he was twenty and already had five staged operas to his credit. If you have an indulgent taste for Mozart's juvenilia — Ascanio in Alba, say,or Il Sogno di Scipione, not-so-great operas written by a future great composer at roughly the same age — you'll likely enjoy this prime specimen of Rossini's, which shows a similarly precocious skill set and the same penchant for overlong, overwritten arias.
Demetrio was a collaboration with the family of Domenico Mombelli, a tenor and composer and early believer in young Rossini's talents, whose wife, Vincenzina Viganò, penned the text for this two-act dramma seria — Syrian king versus Parthian king, their children romantically entwined — with meaty roles for her husband and their two teenage daughters, soprano Ester and contralto Anna, and a bass thrown in for vocal balance. The opera was written piecemeal — an aria here, a quartet there — and it probably wasn't uppermost in its composer's mind when it finally was staged at Rome's Teatro Valle in May 1812, with Ludovico Olivieri augmenting the Mombelli trio.
The Mombellis kept the opera circulating for another few years, but it didn't outlive their promotion. In fact, it's a far-from-riveting piece of stagecraft. Davide Livermore, the director of this 2010 production from the Rossini Opera Festival, does his clever best to liven things up. Livermore seems to enjoy giving early Rossini a distinctive external frame: last year's Ciro in Babilonia, seen both in Pesaro and at Caramoor, was a mock silent-screen epic; here, we have the conceit of the Mombellis' ghosts haunting a modern-day theater to enact an after-hours performance of Demetrio e Polibio. There's a "prequel" set to the overture — a series of post-curtain fussings-about by a vain performer, his staff and a stage crew in "D+P" T-shirts — and since the music may be Mombelli's and not Rossini's, and the action is sufficiently droll, one can excuse Livermore his fancy. When the ghosts, in Rossini-era costume, come out to play, accompanied by silent doubles and indulging in a great deal of stylized action and flame-in-hand "magic," the apparent assessment that the rest of the opera needs help hardly rankles, either. It does.
Still, this goosed-up Demetrio works; and Livermore and his energetically complicit conductor, Corrado Rovaris, extract the best from their talented young cast, all of whose careers have blossomed since the summer of 2010. The two ladies — soprano María José Moreno (in the opera's most fancifully florid role) and mezzo Victoria Zaytseva — do nicely indeed as the young lovers. But it's the title-rolers who command the show: basso Mirco Palazzi sings a handsomely sturdy Polibio, and tenor Yijie Shi, filling Papa Mombelli's shoes as Demetrio the elder, is a special standout, persuasively alternating incisive ring and honeyed tenderness. Sound and image are first-rate. No T-shirt is included, but this D+P should prove a comfortable fit for any sportiveRossinian.
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