Rossini Festival Revives Aureliano In Vocal Splendor

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Jessica Pratt as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, in the Rossini Opera Festival's 'Aureliano in Palmira.'  (Production photos by Amati Bacciardi)

Jessica Pratt as Queen Zenobia, whose realm is invaded by Romans, in the restored Rossini rarity ‘Aureliano in Palmira.’
(Rossini Opera Festival production photos by Amati Bacciardi)

By Rebecca Schmid

PESARO – Opera in Italy has seen better times. Funding from both public and private sources is shrinking. Major companies such as Rome Opera are standing on the brink of disaster. Add to the list of problems heavy rain this summer, which caused delays and cancellations at the Arena di Verona, and the situation could not look more grim.

Arsace (Lena Belkina) and Zenobia (Pratt) share an intimate moment.

Arsace (Lena Belkina) and Zenobia (Pratt) share an intimate moment.

But the Rossini Opera Festival (Aug.10-22), in this picturesque seaside town where Gioachino Rossini was born, has persevered with an unrivaled standard of musical authenticity. All three opera productions this year were based on recent critical editions that restore frequently made cuts to Rossini’s scores.  A new edition of Aureliano in Palmira by conductor Will Crutchfield, premiered under his baton, takes into account the substantial role of the castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti (who sang Arsace) in the opera as it was originally performed.

[In a lecture-demonstration intended to show the celebrated castrato Velluti’s influence on Rossini’s own style of embellishment, Crutchfield lined up three singers, at right, to repeat brief phrases in succession, first from Rossini’s original of Arsace, next as Velluti performed them with his own embellishments, and third from Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa” in Il barbiere di Siviglia, which shows Rossini re-using his own music, but in a way that reflects Velluti’s style.]

Aureliano does not count among Rossini’s most successful operas, but rather served as a breeding ground for Barbiere and pointed the way to more elaborate opere serie. The story revolves around a power struggle between Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and the Roman Emperor Aureliano, who invades her territory but – in this fictional account – blesses her union with the Persian Prince Arsace in exchange for political allegiance.

'Ah solo al dolore,' the prison duet.

‘Ah solo al dolore,’ the duet of Queen Zenobia and imprisoned Arsace.

Rossini spins out one skillful duet after another, from “Ah solo al dolore” – sung by the imprisoned Arsace and the devastated Zenobia – to “Se liberta t’é cara,” one of the Queen’s numbers with Aureliano. The repeated confrontations of the two rulers threaten to grow wearisome, but it hardly mattered given the cast assembled in the intimate Teatro Rossini.

The soprano Jessica Pratt is not only sovereign in every element of bel canto singing – with a messa di voce that grows from a floating pianissimo into a booming dramatic tone, a wide palette of firework ornamentation, and a sensuous lyric line – but she is also a fine actress. She incarnated the slighted Queen with an affecting combination of regal vengeance and vulnerability.

As Aureliano, Michael Spyres reigned over every line with his pliable spinto while maintaining an air of cool distance. The mezzo-soprano Lena Belkina made a moving Arsace, with a fearless presence and voice that flowed like dark silk. In a cast that was strong down to the comprimario roles, the mezzo-soprano Raffaella Lupinacci easily held her own as the rueful Roman Publia, who is in love with Arsace.

The Roman Emperor Aureliano (Michael Spyres) invades Palmyra.

The Roman Emperor Aureliano (Michael Spyres) invades Palmyra.

One can only lament that budget cuts left the production with an orchestra and a set design unable to rise to the standard of singing. Crutchfield managed to create compelling dramatic tension already in the overture (which is virtually identical to that of Barbiere) through skillful use of pauses and rubato, but the technical shortcomings of the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini were distracting. Most glaring was a horn solo that proceeded to fizzle out completely during Spyres’ immaculately rendered cabaletta, “A pugnar mi accinsi, O Roma.”

Stage direction by Mario Martone fleshed out the characters in standard fashion, and costumes by Ursula Patzak recreated the camps of the Persians and Romans with an authentic touch. But sets by Sergio Tramonti appeared scrappy and convoluted. Surely it would have made more sense to replace a maze of flimsy scrims with a more imposing backdrop and forgo the live goats that came ominously close to the pit in Act II.

***

The lovers Armida (Carmen Romeu) and Rinaldo (Antonino Siragusa).

The lovers Armida (Carmen Romeu) and Rinaldo (Antonino Siragusa).

A new production of Armida, staged in a temporary theater space of an arena just outside Pesaro with surprisingly good acoustics, benefited from a more coherent concept, directed by Luca Ronconi. The story about the doomed love affair of a sorceress and a Christian crusader, despite a slow start in the first act, emerged in imaginative strokes with giant, golden seashells for the lovers, bat-like beings for the realm of Armida (who herself grows wings after declaring vengeance on Rinaldo), and scrumptiously gowned nymphs that emerge with the enchanted forest’s transformation into a palace.

The dance interludes of Act II gained a fresh take to choreography by Michele Abbondanza, even if one would have wished for more movement that shadowed the orchestra’s lines, performed by Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna with tremendous elegance and attention to dynamic shading under the baton of Carlo Rizzi.

Armida grows wings after declaring vengeance on Rinaldo.

Armida grows wings after declaring vengeance on Rinaldo.

The cast brought together three tenors of the highest caliber with Antonino Siragusa as the ensnared crusader Rinaldo; Randall Bills, who doubled as the Christian leader Gofredo and warrior Ubaldo; and Dmitry Korchak as both Rinaldo’s rival Gernando and the warrior Carlo, who joins Ubaldo in bringing Rinaldo back to his senses (culminating in the trio “Sospira, langue, geme”). As Armida, the soprano Carmen Romeu gave a performance of great emotional depth but occasionally smudged and strained high notes, which warranted a few boos from Pesaro’s sophisticated crowd.

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The audience’s high musical standards and deep knowledge of Rossini were even more on display during a new semi-staging of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Despite an amateurish production by the Accademia di belle Arte di Urbino, no small joke or gesture went unappreciated.

A confusing moment during the Rossini Opera Festival production of 'Barbiere.'

A merry moment during the Rossini Opera Festival’s production of ‘Il barbiere di Siviglia.’

The tenor Juan Francisco Gatell, as the scheming aristocrat Count Almaviva, and the baritone Florian Sempey, as the buffoonish Figaro, complimented each other with commanding vocal skill, sharp dramatic timing, and youthful energy. Chiara Amaru brought a lush but sinuous tone to the role of Rosina, and Paolo Bordogna managed to transform the despised Bartolo into an appealing character.

Add to that the Basilio of Alex Esposito and the Berta of Andrea Vincenza, and one couldn’t ask for a stronger cast. The Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna brought buoyant rhythms and flexible attention to musical line under the young conductor Giacomo Sagripanti. In Pesaro, despite a looming crisis, bel canto has not lost its splendor.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as Gramophone, MusicalAmerica.com, Opernwelt, and The New York Times.

Date posted: August 26, 2014

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