How many times have you seen Gioachino Rossini’a Zelmira (1822)? Unless you were in the audience at Lisner Auditorium last Friday night, your answer is almost assuredly never; it was last performed in the United States in 1835. Rossini is considered one of three bel canto masters in Italian opera along with Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Rossini wrote 34 operas in total; roughly ten of these are still performed, and one, The Barber of Seville, is among the most often performed operas in the world. Why bring this one back? It’s rather bold to do so, but Washington Concert Opera under Conductor and Artistic Director Antony Walker’s direction has a solid record of unearthing forgotten treasures to enjoy once more…but still, there is the question why this one. There is an interesting history to this opera, though ultimately the answer to the question lies in the impact of the performance. I went home happy…though not completely fulfilled.
If you go searching for information on Zelmira, you won’t find a lot; at least I couldn’t. Fortunately, Peter Russell, General Director of Vocal Arts DC, provided helpful insights in the program notes and his pre-opera talk. One message is that composers must be evaluated in the context of economic and social fabric of the composer’s day. Rossini was a great composer, but he was to some degree a laborer. He was required by the Teatro San Carlo company in Naples to write an opera per year as terms of a lucrative ten-year contract with one of the premier opera houses of its time. (I wonder if there is a composer who would accept those terms today; turn out an opera every year?). These became known as Rossini’s Neopolitan Operas and Zelmira was the last he wrote before heading to be feted in Vienna, then to London and finally to Paris, where he settled down for the rest of his life. Another tidbit to know was that early composers often wrote, even rewrote, music and arias for specific performers – as Mr. Russell noted, the success of the composer was wed to the success of the singer. Mr. Rossini’s sweetie at the time was a soprano whose voice was moving into the latter stages of its career, and who did little to enhance the appeal of Zelmira as the production moved around Europe. But I think Mr. Russell’s key point was that at that time opera was already starting to move away from bel canto singing, and thus, there soon were few singers with the training to do justice to Zelmira’s music and provide for its performance into the next century.
Enter Lawrence Brownlee, one of today’s few leading bel canto tenors. Bel canto singing and operas made a resurgence in the 1960s, Maestro Walker had worked before with Mr. Brownlee and a star mezzo-soprano who performs bel canto, Silvia Tro Santafé. So ,there was motive (Rossini’s music), means (bel canto singers), and opportunity (concert opera format). The concert opera format was important because it turns out that the greatest deterrent to Zelmira’s appeal is the story and libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, based on the play “Zelmire” by Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy. Excellent music coupled to a flawed story line and/or libretto is fertile territory for concert opera as WCO has proven many times; see my reports on WCO’s La Straniera or Maria di Rohan.
Zelmira is a princess on Lesbos who gets falsely accused of murdering her father King Polidoro and a neighboring king named Azor. Antenore who wants to become king of both islands himself is aided in this deception by his follower, Leucippo; together they rile the people with the lies against Zelmira and even convince her husband Ilo of her guilt. Zelmira is aided in protecting her son and Polidoro, who is still alive, by her confidante Emma. The opera begins confusingly in the middle of the story and never provides compelling motivations for the characters, especially why Ilo believes the lies about Zelmira, and ends with a rather convenient happy ending: Ilo realizes Zelmira is innocent; he rescues the family and has Antenore and Leucippo hauled off to prison. I think there is a good story there, but Tottola failed to find it. Nonetheless, the arias within the context of the story are more effective than if they stood alone, but the story as told doesn’t work for audiences today and strained the credulity of audiences of its time. It seems an enigma that a great composer would agree to compose for such a contrivance. I puzzled for a while and posed the question to Mr. Russell who responded that there is little in the historical record that explains Rossini’s choice. He further states “Truthfully, lots of plays (in this case, a French source) that were relatively popular at the time and seemed adaptable in terms of numbers/types of roles to available personnel wound up becoming operas, and the motivation may have been that simple. Sometimes, simply churning out the product to satisfy a contract guesstimating what will find favor with an opera audience based on what sold theater tickets seems to have been the modus operandi.” Fair enough. When I was a boy, I remember going, what seems like weekly, to the movies to see the latest western. I enjoyed them all, and some were actually good movies. I get the feeling that opera-goers in nineteenth century Italy were like that, and the composers churned out operas to meet the demand.
The greatest enigma with Rossini is why he stopped composing opera so early in his life. He died at the age of 76, but he retired from composing opera at age 37 when he was still near the top of his game and seemed to be evolving into a new era of composition for him. I have puzzled along with many others about what caused him to stop writing operas. The NY Times’ Zachary Woolfe wrote an informative article on this question, but was unable to resolve the riddle. Maybe it’s not a riddle at all. You might ask why I retired from a career in science in which I had training and experience and started writing an opera blog where I had neither. I retired because I was ready to and was in a position to, and I started the blog because I wanted to; I cannot tell you why I wanted to. I imagine Rossini was the same. He retired from composing because he was ready and could, and did what he wanted to do. I can only tell you I am having the time of my life, and I suspect Rossini did as well, at least I am choosing to believe that version.
Back to Mr. Brownlee – he added a new experience for me with WCO. I can’t remember Conductor Walker previously having to pause the performance for several minutes while the audience poured forth with applause like they did for Lawrence Brownlee at the end of his first aria, admittedly a barn burner. If you came for bel canto singing, this is what you came for, and it went on with shorter periods of applause until the end. Ms. Tro Santafé was also excellent, though somewhat more reserved in manner; I enjoyed her performance very much and realized I had heard her sing previously in Barcelona. For an expert critique of the singers in Zelmira, I refer you to Charles Downey’s excellent review. As an opera fan, I thought the entire cast and chorus were pretty great. Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Emma displayed a lovely voice and extraordinary emotion and artistry. The other guys, Patrick Carfizzi as Polidoro, Julius Ahn as Antenore, and Matthew Scolin as Leucippo displayed powerful and attractive voices. On the amusing side, I thought Mr. Carfizzi sometimes sounded like he was singing a love song rather than a lament ; Mr. Ahn sometimes seemed bemused at what a powerful leader he was, and Mr. Scolin’s Leucippo clearly had anger issues. I had seen Mr. Ahn the previous week in Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly.
Maestro Walker was again part of the show with his bouncy, animated style of conducting and the orchestra played well. I enjoyed the music greatly. Rossini’s music had the elements we enjoy with Rossini, the melodies, harmonies, and crescendos. As a fan though, I must admit I found this Rossini slightly less satisfying overall than other works of his; for me it had great Rossini moments, but was not an overall cohesive work. Frankly, I missed having an overture; omitting the overture is a device that has drawn praise for being able to thrust the audience directly into the drama. Well, Verdi seemed able to write overtures that enhanced a dramatic opera, and with Rossini I especially look forward to his overtures. I also found the music to be more thrust and parry than developing flowing melodic themes. I have criticized new operas for lacking melodies one goes home whistling, but the same is true of this opera. I also found his heavy use of pizzicato to become noticeable and thus distracting; in general the opera’s structural elements began to feel repetitive. That sounds more critical than I mean to be. Keep in mind I would gladly attend this performance again with this cast and orchestra. Also keep in mind that it is a treat to get to hear something that good for the first time; this was another gift of that kind from WCO to DC audiences. I would not give up The Barber, but it is thrilling to have some variety and an average Rossini is pretty darn good, and a fine opportunity to show off some bel canto talent.
The Fan Experience: As mentioned above, this was one opera where Peter Russell’s program notes and pre-opera talk an hour before the opera should have been required. Zelmira was held on a Friday night; I’m guessing to get the singers desired. WCO performances move back to Sunday with the new season. I find Sundays much better for commuting and parking. Of note, Lisette Oropesa who will appear in next season’s program just won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.