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Gioachino Rossini: Aureliano in Palmira
Juan Francisco Gatell (Aureliano), Silvia Dalla Benetta (Zenobia), Marina Viotti (Arsace), Ana Victória Pitts (Publia), Baurzhan Anderzhanov (High Priest), Xiang Xu (Oraspe), Zhiyuan Chen (Licinio), Camerata Bach Choir, Poznan, Ania Michalak (chorus master), Virtuosi Brunensis, José Miguel Pérez-Sierra (conductor)
Live recording at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany (July 2017) – 167’05
3 CDs Naxos 8.660448-50 – Booklet notes in English and German; no libretto

Aureliano in Palmira was premiered at La Scala, Milan in December, 1813. It was the 21-year-old composer’s 12th opera, and his fourth premiere that year (the previous year had seen six). It has the reputation of being one of his flops, but this is inaccurate. The opening night had some miscast singers, but the opera was performed frequently up to 1835 and was even performed in London.

The plot involved the historical dispute between the Roman emperor, Aurelian, and Palmyra’s queen, Zenobia, in the year 272. A more apt title, in fact, would be Zenobia, as she is the central character with conflicting personal and political choices to make. She is in love with the Persian prince, Arsace (this is not the Arsace from Semiramide), the only role Rossini composed for a castrato, so here is sung by a mezzo-soprano. There is another mezzo in the fray, Publia, daughter of an earlier emperor (there were frequent changes in emperor during the third century AD – 34 in all, most ending violently). She has managed to fall in love with Arsace and would like to see Zenobia out of the romantic picture – perhaps married to Aureliano? There is a battle and Arsace is captured. Zenobia is allowed to plead for his release, and offers great treasure for this. Aureliano is impressed by both her steadfastness and her beauty. After further battle, Arsace has managed to escape and is reunited with Zenobia, but then they are both captured. Publia appeals for clemency – she would prefer that Arsce lives, even with another woman. Aureliano once again expresses admiration for the stalwart pair – they could almost be Roman! Just when Aureliano appears to be proclaiming a harsh penalty, he forgives Zenobia and Arsace, as long as they swear allegiance to Rome. As the booklet states, this goes against “the inner logic of the drama”, and it also notes the inferior quality of the final music.

The opening music sounds familiar for very good reasons: Rossini used the overture just three years later for Il barbiere di Siviglia. It is a bit odd to hear it at the start of an opera seria, and even moreso to hear the tune of Almaviva’s serenade “Ecco, redente in cielo” sung by the opening chorus of Palmyrians as they pray to Isis for deliverance from the Romans. There is a good deal of fine music in the work, and it comes across as a precursor to Bellini’s Norma, with lovely duets for soprano and mezzo (except of course here the mezzo is a male), and a terrific part for the tenor emperor. There is a bit of a tease in the plot as one expects Aurliano to fall in love with Zenobia as he repeatedly expresses his admiration for her, but that is as far as it gets.

The cast is well-chosen and there is notably fine singing from the Zenobia, Silvia Dalla Benetta. Juan Francisco Gatell displays the requisite squillo as Aureliano, and Marina Viotti does a fine job as Arsace. The chorus work is less than dazzling (the music might have something to do with it), although José Miguel Pérez-Sierra, like in his earlier recording of Ricciardo e Zoraide, has a good grasp of the style.

This is the second recording of Aureliano in Palmira to come from Wildbad. For someone wanting to get acquainted with the work it has one problem in that there is no libretto, although one (in Italian only) can be found on the Naxos website. A better choice might be the DVD from the 2014 Rossini Festival in Pesaro in a critical edition by Will Crutchfield which would have subtitles.

Michael Johnson




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