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.