Cher Public

Opera Syria

Georgia JarmanAt the Caramoor Bel Canto Festival’s performance of Aureliano in Palmira (a North American premiere, I believe), a friend who doesn’t go to quite so much opera said, “The music’s fun, but doesn’t Rossini repeat himself?” 

Well, yes, he did, because there were no recordings in 1814 and if an opera flopped, no one outside those first audiences had heard those tunes yet. Why not re-use them when you were writing three or four operas a year, time was flying, you were already 22 and not yet rich or famous? Tempus fidgets. Put on the rice and start chopping semiquavers.

Thus, many tunes from the moderate failure, Aureliano, an opera seria composed for La Scala, sound familiar to us. Not because Rossini recycled them from earlier scores but because he re-used them two years later in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Barbiere, as Caramoor’s maestro Will Crutchfield has pointed out, is the cornerstone of the modern operatic repertory, Italian division, and has never been out of earshot since that opening night—a famous flop, by the way—two hundred years ago at Rome’s Teatro Argentina.

The overture to Barbiere was originally devised for Aureliano, and includes several tunes from that score. The opening chorus of the opera, an invocation of Isis (ironically—not only was she not worshipped in ancient Palmyra, her name is currently bandied by the guys who dynamited the gorgeous ruined city last year) became the opening tenor aria of Barbiere, and the stretto that closes Act I is the one that closes the overture. “Una voce poco fa” turns up at another point.

The opera has everything you expect in a Rossini opera except a thunderstorm, which might be a little difficult to arrange in the Syrian desert. Not that it would have been unwelcome on a hot humid night in Katonah!

What evidently went wrong at La Scala in 1814 is the last-minute replacement of a star tenor with a mediocre one, the consequent cut of a major duet that left Velluti’s role in tatters, a resulting feud between Rossini and Velluti that left both men disinclined to revisit the show or each other, and the rest of the world with a false estimate of the score’s charms.

Happily, the Fondazione Rossini has come to the rescue, though even star singers could hardly bring excitement to the roundabout and indirect plot (very early Felice Romani), a cluttered forerunner of the masterpiece Semiramide.

For those of you unaware of all the other Aureliano and Zenobia operas (why did Hollywood not film them back in the day with, say, Victor Mature and Gina Lollabrigida and an Elmer Bernstein soundtrack?), the story concerns the war of Aurelian, one of Rome’s greatest emperors, against Zenobia, the widowed warrior queen of the Nabataeans, an Arab trading principality sprawled about the oasis of Tadmor. Zenobia was famous for her generalship, her courage and her chastity. Aurelian could meet her on all these counts.

This story of two chaste figures lacks romance, so for libretto purposes Rossini has added a Persian prince named, you guessed it, Arsace. (Aren’t they all?) Arsace and Zenobia are in love, but he is captured by Aureliano. When Zenobia comes to arrange his ransom, the emperor falls in love with the queen. Various confrontations, anguished arias, choruses of this or that fail to resolve the situation.

It is a curiosity of this opera, and one in advance of its time, that the story develops in duets rather than in a tedious series of solo arias. At last, with moments to go, Aureliano, seeing the lovers’ bravery and unselfish devotion, changes his mind, pardons everybody and goes home to build the walls of Rome.

The actual point of Rossini’s composing this, and of inserting Arsace, appears to have been Giovanni Battista Velluti, the last of the great castrato singers, renowned from London to Venice. Stendhal damns him with faint praise as too elaborate in ornamentation, and that judgment is usually parroted, but Maestro Crutchfield, in one of his always fascinating talks (with interspersed arias) during the afternoon, made a case (quoting a lot of London reviewers) that Velluti was in fact a superb musician, and suggesting that his style of ornament helped inspire the melodic transformation of the classical to the romantic period, the era of Bellini, Donizetti and Chopin.

Aureliano, all three and a half hours of it (with cadenzas), when at last we came to it, proved worthy of the attention. If the plot’s twists and turns seem less than compelling (imagine Game of Thrones if only the characters with noble motives took part), the singing was of high quality, the orchestration fascinating for Rossini’s ideas, even so early in his career, of varying texture and suiting the tune to the dramatic mood.

The choruses were nicely varied (imploring populace, grave priests, happy shepherds), all of them nicely delivered by the Caramoor Young Artists. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, rather smaller on this occasion than for, say, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, performed in a sprightly manner, though Crutchfield’s tempi could be on the plodding side.

Georgia Jarman, the Zenobia, a Caramoor regular, is evolving into a lovely singer with real dramatic soprano weight to her voice, a true bel canto evenness and elegance to her ornaments, and an intensity of expression under pressure that is never unmusical or inappropriate, which speaks highly of her judgment. She is emerging as a real prima donna, and her harmonizing with Arsace was especially delectable.

Tamara Mumford’s Arsace also gave great pleasure in long-breathed phrases and plangent harmonies, and her range from joyous high notes to deep low ones always astonishes. But her fiorture were on the muddy side, as is so often the case with non-specialists in this repertory. The enormous showpieces roused enthusiasm but not intoxication—to put it bluntly, she gave little idea of what Velluti did that brought down the house all over Europe. Comparisons are odious, but I could only reflect on what Marilyn Horne, with her note by note precision, would have done with this music in her heyday.

Andrew Owens, who sang the title role, has a very pleasing tenor and a forthright delivery, but the voice is too small for so heroic a role as the amorously frustrated Roman emperor. He could always be heard clearly, and the sound was enjoyable, but it faded in contest with the ladies. In the circumstances, all too naturally, he began to push it and ran out of steam in his final aria.

In minor roles, Chrystal Williams displayed an attractive alto quality with uncertain pitch, tenor Sean Christensen was pleasant, baritone Xiaomeng Zhang impressively solid and Thomas Lynch inadequate.

  • sutherlandfan

    I would agree with John’s assessment of the singers for the most part. Although Andrew Owens did run out of steam at the very end, his performance before the last 10 minutes (yes, out of 3 1/2 hours) was exciting and most enjoyable. I would add that THIS is the way to present concert opera. With no scores and plenty of stage movement, the lack of scenery was hardly missed. Indeed, in this opera it was almost preferable to a fully staged production. In addition, it should be noted that Andrew Owens has terrific stage presence.

    • True, he did. And I agree with you about the advantages of no scenery, since Rossini was happy to sketch it in for us.

      They tried “CGI” scenery once, for Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia (conveniently, the designers were preparing the production for Pesaro, where they have done other things), and I found it very distracting. Others enjoyed it.

  • almavivante

    From where I was sitting (about three-quarters of the way back), it looked as if Owens isn’t a tall man (and certainly Tamara Mumford, in her heels, stood over him), but he did indeed command the stage. He never lacked for an imperial demeanor. I’ve enjoyed Georgia Jarman ever since she sang Deidamia at Caramoor some years ago, and did this year too, but her performance was merely magnificent as compared to the superhuman rapid-fire coloratura of Luciana Serra’s warrior queen Zenobia (you can hear it on YouTube).

    Though it’s tangential to this discussion, I must add that I’m beginning, with regret, to prefer concert performances of operas over staged ones. Having recently returned from Europe, I suffered through an Aida at the Bastille that although well sung was certainly the worst production of an opera I’ve seen in my life--far worse than the Met’s appalling Sonnambula, and no exaggeration. Later the same week, the Trovatore at Covent Garden (also well sung, for the most part) infantilized the opera with redundant video projections (butterflies of romance for Leonora’s entrance aria, a burning stake for Azucena, etc.) and poorly designed costumes (Azucena made up to resemble Vampira, and cradling a crummy doll throughout). That the setting was--I believe--the 1930s Spanish civil war didn’t help matters. On occasions like these, I think, “Oh, turn off the lights and just sing the bloody thing, and I’ll be content.” Never thought I’d ever say this…

    • Yeah. Me too. Except for some of the livelier little companies, I’m getting to feel the best opera is in concert. The best acting in opera, too.

    • grimoaldo

      ” I suffered through an Aida at the Bastille that although well sung was certainly the worst production of an opera I’ve seen in my life”

      Yes, I saw that too. Not quite sure I would say it was the worst production of an opera I have ever seen, there is such stiff competition, including an even more atrocious, if possible, Aida at Covent Garden with a production by Robert Wilson. That one was unendurable as it also had singers who were no good and I only lasted half way through. I knew, sort of,what I was in for with the Bastille Aida (cleaning ladies dusting a gold model of the Arc de Triomphe during the triumphal march) and finally turned the lights off for myself, as it were, during the “ballet” sequences (they did not dance, there were just idiotic and grotesque cavortings about) by closing my eyes and just listening to the music.
      But it was still a great night because of the singers especially Radvan and la Rach. Not sure those ladies would have thrown themselves into their roles so much if it had been a concert.
      There were loud and prolonged boos from every area of the theatre in the middle and at the end of the triumph scene the night I was there. The audience made it quite clear that they hated, hated, hated the staging. The people who run the houses don’t seem to care, it’s like that is the result they want.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        I loved the Robert Wilson Aida and was very sad that it was never revived. I thought it conveyed more of the atmosphere of the setting and the relationships of the characters than any other Aida I’ve ever seen. I also recall being very impressed with Norma Fantini in the title role, and the production quite suited Botha, who could certainly sing it.

        • Krunoslav

          I liked Fantini’s Met Aida very much-- kind of Cetra, in a good way-- and was mocked therefor ( “Oh, you ALWAYS love provincial sopranos!”) by a fellow Parterrean.

        • Jack Jikes

          The Wilson Aida is vastly superior to every other production I’ve seen.
          Beautiful -- for the Nile scene you actually got to see the river with ruins in the
          background. It caught the majesty and mystery in Verdi’s score.
          I recently say the Py debacle -- the sets should be melted down to fashion anti-ISIS

      • armerjacquino

        The idea that the people who run opera houses don’t care about the quality of productions or the reaction of audiences is, to put it mildly, nuts.

        • grimoaldo

          I didn’t say that they don’t care, that production of “Aida” seemed like a deliberate attempt to provoke outrage to me, and if so it succeeded.

          • grimoaldo

            Before aj corrects me, let me admit my guilt. I see that I did use the actual words “don’t seem to care.”
            He needn’t bother to rebuke me for it, he is right, as always, and I am wrong.

      • almavivante

        The Amneris I heard on July 4 was Daniela Barcellona. She and Sondra were indeed terrific, and yes, I closed my eyes through a good deal of the second half. (They played it with only one interval.) I regret to say I heard only thunderous applause as I bolted from my seat at the end (and Amneris wasn’t the only one saying anatema su voi).

        Having been spared the Robert Wilson Aida I cannot comment on it, other than to say that he really has only one production in him, be it Pelleas et Melisande (which I also saw at the Bastille), or Lohengrin, or whatever--they all look the same, with all the same tropes, and the singers are directed to make the same stylized gestures. Others will no doubt disagree, but I believe he couldn’t care less what the opera is actually about.

        • PCally

          Not always a fan of Wilson but when it works, it works. The Pelleas is incredible and conjures up the tone and the atmosphere better than any other I’ve encountered. And his Quartet at BAM was absolutely fascinating and got more visceral intensity than one tends to see from the occasionally astonishing but often (IMO) lethargic Isabelle Huppert. I never understand the notion that someone simply doesn’t care about the work their staging. Just because one doesn’t respond to what they’re seeing doesn’t mean a director couldn’t care less. Why would a director devote so much of his life to pieces that he doesn’t care about?

          • I’ve seen a bit of the Wilson Pelleas on TV (funnily, I was in the Carribean and it was on the arts channel). If ever an opera was suited to Wilson’s specific gifts, that one is it.

          • almavivante

            “Why would a director devote so much of his life to pieces that he doesn’t care about?”

            Because it’s a job and he’s now a brand name.

            • PCally

              Most artists spend years before they become a brand name, so that’s hardly a realistic reason. Something attracted him to the art form in the first place. It’s extraordinarily hard to succeed in the arts, especially directing opera, so if he honestly didn’t give a shit he probably wouldn’t have bothered.

            • armerjacquino


      • I honestly didn’t see why people got so hot under the collar about Py’s Aida, even if it wasn’t a great production. Certainly not ALL the audience hated it; it was more, as a lady near me noted at the interval, like a “Bataille d’Ernani” with one lot trying to boo or cheer the other down.

        I’ve liked quite a lot of Wilson’s productions, including his charming and funny Fables de La Fontaine at the Comédie Française. Aida wasn’t the best, but I saw it at La Monnaie, where they seem to be technically stretched by the demands for razor-edged lighting.

    • messa di voce

      Well, I love Sonnambula and I love the Met’s production -- as does the audience every time I’ve seen it in the house. A finely detailed, touching and poetic exploration of the never-never land in between waking and dreaming.

      • jackoh

        Messa: I’m with you in your assessment of the Zimmerman Sonnambula (apparently there aren’t very many of us). While not totally coherent, it at least tries to give us a conception of the opera as something other than an innocuous fairy tale. And rather than rendering the the presentation of operas as displays of great music on an inert base, I think that we have to celebrate any effort to make those works come alive as not just beautiful music, but also as commentaries on the human condition (as, I would think, they were intended to be).

        • armerjacquino

          Everything I’ve ever read about the Met’s SONNAMBULA has made me want to see it.

          • Krunoslav

            Well, I only saw it opening night and I wanted to throw things. Since then-- starting at the second show-- they apparently no longer have Amina write “ARIA” on a chalk board before she started “Ah, non credea”. I wanted to scream- such a high pitch of self-conscious twee.

            A reliable witness told me yesterday that when she saw it with Camerena and Damrau she barely noticed the bêtises of the staging.

            • Gualtier M

              Damrau and Camarena gave the “Sonnambula” heart. Dessay played it all as comedy with an air of self-regarding “aren’t we clever” archness.

      • Jack Jikes

        I agree.

        • Jack Jikes

          Sonnambula having the impact of a Pirandello play -- it was wonderful!

          • Krunoslav

            More like a bad NOISES OFF, with Dessay ooening night.

  • armerjacquino

    I honestly didn’t see why people got so hot under the collar about Py’s Aida

    Because it was a deliberate attempt to provoke the audience, of course! That’s exactly how multi-million Euro businesses in fragile sectors are run.

  • almavivante

    Well, it’s happened again. I post an opinion found to be unpopular by most of the cher public and it opens up a debate among Parterreans of widely (one might say wildly) varying tastes.

    Ali Kashani, you really thought the Wilson Pelleas atmospheric? You are as ever the voice on sanity and civility on this Wild West of a website and I always take your point of view seriously even if I don’t entirely agree with it, but this time I’m truly puzzled. That production looked like it took place in a vacuum--no sets to speak of, little or no emotional interaction among the characters, just stylized gestures and postures, and if memory serves, a projection of some kind of white disk (the moon?) that moved around in the stage picture. To return to my original comment, a concert performance would have provided as much visual satisfaction and emotional impact. But if you liked it, eh bien…

    • Almavivante: No, I didn’t. I just said that I liked the bit that I saw and that the piece suits Wilson’s style.

    • And thanks for your kind words. :)

      • almavivante

        You’re quite welcome. And sorry I (indirectly) misquoted you. It was the post above yours that used the word “atmosphere.”

  • redbear

    Wilson is always creating art onstage. He is highly honored throughout Europe for his entire career. But why would anyone here expect to see art in the opera?

    • Krunoslav

      Why indeed, when we’re just a bunch of silly-billy high-note mad sots who also fail to appreciate your sovereign wisdom.