ROSSINI Aureliano in Palmira (Pérez-Sierra)
The ancient Roman city of Palmyra has been a good deal in the news this past decade. And so, curiously, has the young Rossini’s opera on the city’s conquest in 272AD, when the Emperor Aurelian, tired of the insurgencies of Palmyra’s fractious Queen Zenobia, decided to intervene.
Rossini wrote the opera for La Scala, Milan, at the end of a year which had brought him Europe-wide acclaim with that loveliest of all his early works, the heroic melodrama Tancredi. Though Aureliano in Palmira has always sat somewhat in Tancredi’s shade (no ‘hit’ number to match ‘Di tanti palpiti’), it has its own charm and allure, as is clearly recognised by José Miguel Pérez-Sierra, conductor of this appropriately alert and gracious 2017 Rossini in Wildbad revival.
Aureliano is one of only three Rossini operas for which no manuscript survives. The new performance, like the 2012 Opera Rara account, uses the very serviceable Peters Edition. It is a shorter and less richly elaborated version of the opera than that which we have in Will Crutchfield’s Critical Edition and on the DVD of the successful staging of that edition at the 2014 Rossini Festival in Pesaro.
The title-role is curious in as much as Rossini wrote the first act for the young coloratura tenor Giovanni David and the second act for a less gifted singer who stepped in when David fell ill. Juan Francisco Gatell, a commanding Aureliano, is equally at home in both parts. The role of Arsace, a former ally of Rome, now Zenobia’s lover, was added to the historical narrative by Rossini and his librettist Felice Romani as a vehicle for the famously flamboyant 34-year-old castrato Giovan Battista Velluti. These days it’s a well-liked mezzo role nicely sung here by Marina Viotti.
The Zenobia, Silvia Dalla Benetta, though secure in her middle registers and vivid in recitative, doesn’t command all the firepower the character demands. But, then, this too is a curious role; a lovelorn warrior queen created by Rossini for a locally acclaimed Zerlina and Queen of the Night. It’s in Zenobia’s big Act 1 aria ‘Là pugnai’ that Benetta is outshone by Catriona Smith (Opera Rara) and by Jessica Pratt, who uses Pesaro’s fuller text.
That said, all three principals work well together. There are also strong performances in the small but important comprimario roles of the High Priest (the Kazakh bass Baurzhan Anderzhanov) and Aureliano’s self-sacrificing daughter Publia (Ana Victória Pitts). Minor drawbacks include some overweening fortepiano-playing in the recitatives and the live recording’s distant placing of the chorus at the start of the opera and in the lovely pastoral interlude in Act 2.
The DVDs of the distinguished Pesaro staging offer the more complete experience but, at nearly a third of the price of its Opera Rara rival, this new Naxos set provides an affordable introduction to a very collectable Rossini rarity.