Saturday, 12 September 2015

Rossini - Aureliano in Palmira (Pesaro, 2013 - Blu-ray)

Gioachino Rossini - Aureliano in Palmira

Rossini Opera Festival, 2013

Will Crutchfield, Mario Martone, Michael Spyres, Jessica Pratt, Lena Belkina, Raffaella Lupinacci, Dempsey Rivera, Sergio Vitale, Dimitri Pkhaladze, Raffaele Costantini

Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray

Perhaps the most notable thing about Aureliano in Palmira (apart from the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra making headlines in the news at the moment) is that it was the first serious opera performed at the newly opened La Scala in Milan in 1813. What is also of musical interest is that the work catches Rossini in an intermediate period, paying homage or drawing inspiration from the 18th century opera seria, but really making strides to set the standard for a style of Italian opera that would predominate for most of the 19th century and achieve completeness in the works of Giuseppe Verdi. The opera itself, one of the last rarities to be revived at the Rossini Opera Festival, is however unfortunately rather less inspiring nowadays.

Dramatically, Aureliano in Palmira is a very dry affair. The libretto, replete with da capo arias, is unfashionably Metastasian in form, and it's not all that different in plot or treatment from Rossini's 1817 Adelaide di Borgogna. It's the familiar story of a romantic entanglement in a time of war, Aureliano the conquering power of Rome, demanding that Zenobia the strong female leader of Palmyra yield also to his romantic advances otherwise he will kill her imprisoned lover, Arbace. Rather than be dispirited by the shame and humiliation inflicted upon their ruler by the Roman aggressor, the people of Syria rally behind Zenobia and Arbace in their quest for freedom.

With its theme of a people oppressed, the opera even opening with a chorus lament, there are clear comparisons that can be drawn with Verdi's Nabucco. And even though the arias are often opera seria in style and delivery, they are dramatically attuned to the plot, developing into duets and inevitably into choruses. All of these look towards the cavatina and cabaletto structures of the bel canto and High Romantic Italian numbers opera style, and it's unquestionably fascinating to see their development here in this Rossini rarity. It's an area that has been under-explored at the Rossini Opera Festival, where the emphasis has been more on rediscovering the early comedies and doing justice to the grand operas of Mosè in Egitto and Guillaume Tell.

Aureliano in Palmira evidently doesn't hold the same kind of allure, but what this production has going for it is the team that made the revival of another 'special interest' Rossini opera such a marvel. Will Crutchfield, Jessica Pratt and Michael Spyres all contributed to making Ciro in Babilonia (1812) something much greater than it might otherwise have been, and they are also what makes this production of Aureliano in Palmira worthwhile. You could say the same about any Rossini opera, but it's a work that really needs a strong, understanding and sympathetic treatment, to say nothing of the highest musical standards.

Unfortunately, what Ciro in Babilonia also benefited from and which Aureliano in Palmira lacks is an engaging visual hook. Davide Livermore's 'silent movie' production might have seemed arbitrary, but it perfected suited the old-fashioned nature of Ciro and found a good context that would bring out the qualities of the work. Film director Mario Martone's production doesn't make any such wild leaps or modernisations in its setting (certainly nothing on the scale of Graham Vick's Bin Laden in Mosè in Egitto). It respects the Syrian/Roman period in the costumes and in the delivery, only occasionally using shifting and sliding screens to suggest distance/discord between the characters.

The most unusual element of the staging is the placement of a fortepiano on the stage itself which, along with a cello player, provide the recitativo accompaniment. That's partly down to space restrictions in the pit, but there's some effort made - not entirely successfully - to integrate it and the otherwise dry recitative into the staging itself. There are a few walk-ons in and around the audience to try and make the staging a bit more active and engaging, and the director tries to rewrite the forced happy ending with an account of the real historical facts, but none of these devices really serve to make Aureliano in Palmira any more dramatic or help drag it out of its rather predictable conventionality that borders on tedium.

Will Crutchfield had the unenviable task of creating a new critical edition of a work that had to be largely reconstructed on a best guess basis from various sources. To his credit he doesn't attempt to 'soup up' this Rossini with an expanded orchestra or a slick modern reading of the score. It's played with a period-sized orchestra and an authentic feel and drive for the opera seria roots of the work, as well as for its dramatic content. The overture it shares with Il Barbiere di Sevilla given a slightly different tone and meaning in the process. It also means we get more of the generic Rossini here in the playing and conventional rhythms, where it's left to the voices to carry much of the melody and the more sophisticated colouring.

As noted earlier then, the real delight of this production is in the casting of Michael Spyres and Jessica Pratt as Aureliano and Zenobia. As well as commanding great presence, Jessica Pratt's high note coloratura is impressive in range and expression. Her voice is less robust in the more dramatic register, but she doesn't have a lot to work other than the generic in those passages anyway. Michael Spyres is tremendous. The clarity of diction, the resonance in his voice and the lyrical force of that distinct beautiful timbre is well suited to the role and really makes it come to life. Lena Belkina has to contend with playing the castrato role of Arsace as a mezzo-soprano. She does as well as can be expected but is clearly challenged and, focussed on delivery, her performance lacks a dramatic edge.

The production is well presented on Blu-ray disc. Image and sound are both outstanding, the image perhaps slightly softer than usual on account of the low stage lighting. There's a 'making of' feature on the disc that discusses the history of the work and the efforts made to bring it back to the stage at Pesaro. The DVD is a BD50, all-region compatible, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Korean and Japanese.