ROSSINI Demetrio e Polibio
It was in 1809‑10, during Rossini’s final year at Bologna’s Liceo Musicale, that he was invited by the singer-composer Domenico Mombelli to contribute numbers for a two-act dramma serio, Demetrio e Polibio, which Mombelli’s theatrically literate wife had designed for performance by the family’s touring opera troupe. In the event, Rossini wrote most of the score – all but the Overture and a 25-minute stretch (Nos 12‑15) in the opera’s second act – and wrote it, such was the quality of the singers in the Mombelli troupe, at a level of inspiration that surpasses anything you will find in La cambiale di matrimonio, his first professional commission written later that year.
Love and unrighteous anger are the emotional drivers of this neatly crafted four-hander involving the Parthian king Polibio, his daughter Lisinga’s love for Polibio’s stepson Siveno and the unwelcome reappearance of the young man’s natural father, the Syrian king Demetrio. Mombelli himself, a tenor famed for his ‘strong and vibrant’ style, took the role of Demetrio, with the older of his teenage daughters, the high coloratura Ester Mombelli, playing Lisinga opposite her younger sister in the travesti mezzo role of Siveno.
When the troupe staged the opera in Rome in May 1812, the reception bordered on the rapturous, with the erotically alluring close-harmony love duet ‘Questo cor ti giura amore’ published by Ricordi within the month. Stendhal later recalled: ‘Each successive item was a banquet, a miracle of singing at its purest, of melody at its most enchanting.’
At least one live theatre recording appeared on LP in the 1970s, though it was not until the publication of Daniele Carnini’s critical edition, and its performance at the 2010 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro with a superb quartet of singers thrillingly conducted by Corrado Rovaris, that the power of the piece fully hit home. That production is preserved on an ArtHaus DVD not previously noticed in these columns. The new set, by contrast, is a CD release, taken from a staging at the 2016 Rossini in Wildbad festival.
Where the young lovers are concerned, honours are more or less even between the two productions. The Russian mezzo Victoria Yarovaya (a graduate of the Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro) is Wildbad’s vocally distinguished Siveno; and though Sofia Mchedlishvili’s voicing of the high-wire coloratura role of Lisinga may not be as pitch-perfect as that of Pesaro’s María José Moreno, Mchedlishvili’s performance is itself something of a tour de force.
The Wildbad men are less good. Even as a teenager, Rossini wrote memorably for the bass voice, something you won’t deduce from Luca Dall’Amico’s often woolly-sounding and legato-starved singing of Polibio. The Demetrio, tenor César Arrieta, pleases when Demetrio pleases but fails to catch the character’s incendiary moods as Pesaro’s Yijie Shi does to thrilling effect in, say, the blazing end – shades of Verdi’s ‘Di quella pira’ – of his big Act 1 aria.
Luciano Acocella conducts sedately: too sedately at times, which may explain the lack of a sense of occasion surrounding the Wildbad performance. The Pesaro staging has its peculiarities, though since these are mainly dimly lit sideshows they tend to be visually unobtrusive. As a performance, however, it is terrific and very much the version to have.