Gioachino Rossini, music and Andrea Leone Tortola, libretto
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Maurizio Benini, conductor
Besides its Opera in English series on Chandos, Peter Moore's Foundation has sponsored the recording of many a fine bel canto rarity on the label Opera Rara. Donizetti operas received much attention in past years; lately, Rossini has been favored, and Opera Rara's latest resurrection, Zelmira, is a worthy tribute indeed — a finely played, beautifully sung performance of an opera perhaps unlikely to ever regain a foothold in the staged repertory, but with music more than worth a hearing.
All the hallmarks of the classy Opera Rara production are here: superlative artwork, beautifully presented; a booklet of substantial size and content, with a comprehensive essay and fully translated libretto (Italian/English), a lovely range of photos of the performers rehearsing and performing, and most importantly, a commitment to the highest musical standards. The sets do not come cheap, but no one could doubt that the price is justified.
Zelmira belongs to Rossini's string of dramatic efforts composed for Naples, perhaps the best known of which today are La donna del lago and Ermione, the latter having recently enjoyed a remarkable run at New York City Opera. While many of Rossini's comedies maintain a firm grip in the repertory, these dramatic efforts have suffered relative neglect. Before too many reasons are proposed, a look at the performing history of Zelmira, contained in the CD booklet and supplied by the estimable Tom Kaufman, suggests that it is not only the modern era that slighted these operas. Zelmira premiered in 1822; it enjoyed performances in many top opera houses for about ten years. Lisbon saw it in 1839, and after that, Zelmira fell into a long slumber, not to reawake until 1965. This live set is not from a staged production, but rather from a concert performance at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2003.
Why the neglect? Here the essay by Jeremy Commons really earns our thanks, for it is not only wonderfully informative but also clear and honest in its perspective. Right from its debut, the opera earned fine notices for Rossini's score and derisive comment for the libretto, especially the contrived story. Commons refers to the plot's "inverosimilitudes," and they are aplenty. Our finest directors would really be put to the test by a scene such as the one where our put-upon heroine, going to see her estranged husband, interrupts a murder attempt, pulls the knife out of the assassin's hand, only to have the villain tell the freshly-awakened king that she (still holding the knife, of course) was about to commit the crime.
But such unlikely scenes occur throughout many a well-regarded opera. The difference here is in the superficial characterization. Zelmira is the dutiful daughter and faithful wife, despite every tribulation thrown her way. Her husband Ilo is the loving husband in sorrow for the seeming duplicity of his wife, which he believes due to the efforts of the dastardly Antenore and his malevolent lieutenant Leucippo. None of these characters undergoes change or reveals any depth. Zelmira pretty much proceeds like an old silent serial, with various cliff-hangar situations until the literally incredible end, where just as the villains close in to finish off our saintly heroes, the good guys break through a wall and send the baddies off to meet their just desserts.
And what a great time a classy cast has with all this malarkey. Bruce Ford and Marco Palazzi, tenor and baritone, make a wonderfully evil pair. Palazzi's handsome voice should go on to more prepossing roles. Elizabeth Futral's soprano aches with femininity and pain without allowing the heroine's outlandish trials to become too exasperating. A nice counterpart to Ford's high-flying tenor villain is Ilo, an even more high-flying tenor role for the good but confused prince/husband, sung by Antonio Siragusa with admirable control and resourcefulness, if not the last word in elegance.
Rossini's tremendous scoring, often calling to mind great moments in later, more esteemed operas (particularly those of early/middle Verdi) gets a tremendous performance by the Scottish Chamber orchestra, led by Maurizio Benini. The ensemble's chorus also makes a wonderful contribution, especially in a chorus by priests near the end of act one.
This set represents the best Opera Rara has to offer - featuring some wonderful music that would otherwise go unheard, offering talented performers the opportunity for some real vocal display, and providing an important historical service to those who want to know more about the origins of this art form. Zelmira, despite the "inverosimilitudes," is a veritable winner.