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Wednesday, November 30, 2022


(Above: The cover of “Zelmira”)

William Charlton-Perkins writes Classical Notes, a regular feature for the media. This one is titled Zelmira, from Naples to Vienna.

This week’s Opera Rara retrospective looks at the label’s 2005 release of Rossini’s Zelmira. Recorded live in the wonderful acoustics of the Usher Hall, at the Edinburgh International Festival on August 30, 2003, this remarkable set features Maurizio Benini on the podium of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The American coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral heads a virtuoso cast that includes tenors Bruce Ford and Antonino Siragusa, mezzo soprano Manuela Custer, bass baritones Mirco Palazzi and Marco Vinco, and the SCO Chorus.

The opening night of Zelmira in February 1822 marked the culmination of Rossini’s iconic, seven-year Neapolitan stint. His friend and sponsor, the impresario Domenico Barbaja had just signed a contract with Vienna’s prestigious Kärtnertortheater where the composer and his opera were destined to triumph that April. It signalled the start of Rossini’s international career.

Rossini had been lured to Naples at Barbaja’s cunning invitation. This launched the maestro into a period of extraordinary creative fecundity that saw the birth of ten of his greatest masterpieces: Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (1815), Otello (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto (1818), Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione (1819), La donna del Lago (1819), Maometto II (1820) and Zelmira (1822). \

Each of these groundbreaking works premiered at the Teatro San Carlo with the one exception of Otello, which was presented at the smaller Teatro del Fondo, as the S. Carlo was being rebuilt following a disastrous fire. Ranking beside Milan’s La Scala as one Italy’s two premier theatres, the Teatro San Carlo was renowned for its exacting musical standards: and for the brilliance of both its orchestra and its singers.

This meant that throughout his time in the southern Italian capital, Rossini had recourse to an incomparable stable of virtuosi. This included the Spanish prima donna assoluta, Isabella Colbran (who became his mistress, then his wife), along with the bravura Italian tenors Andrea Nozzari and Giovanni David, and the redoubtable bass Michele Benedetti.

But this era of musical opulence was ending. It was widely known that the mighty Barbaja, at the end of the carnival season of 1822, planned to include his powerhouse creative team and their repertoire in his entourage as he moved to Vienna. Zelmira was earmarked as the vehicle that would introduce Rossini to the sophisticated Viennese musical establishment.

To this end, the composer applied his arsenal of creative gifts to the full. He produced a score that builds on each of its predecessors’ successive benchmarks in brilliance and originality, if not quite eclipsing the revolutionary pages found in the cataclysmic finale of Armida.

Underpinning the libretto’s story of the elderly King Polidoro who is saved by his daughter Zelmira from the machinations of a murderous overlord, the music is driven with an inexorable momentum that builds with typical Rossinian rhythmic ebullience. Exuding a tidal flow of energy that alternates between ensembles of visceral power and intimate interludes of delicate charm, the work carries its extremities with a tincture peculiarly its own.

An example of these contrasts is found in the enchanting minor key duet for Zelmira and Emma. Interlaced with its delicate harp accompaniment and beguiling cor anglais obbligato, this gives way to the magnificent Act 1 finale that follows in its wake, a superlative concertato which ranks among Rossini’s most dazzling ensembles.

Other standout moments abound. To the point that a random approach suffices in hinting at thrills that tempt discovery. Take for instance lyric tenor Siragusa’s finely etched triplets, rendered with breathtaking velocity, as he hurtles his way through Ilo’s Act 1 cabaletta, ‘Cara! deh attendimi!’, crowning his feat with a ringing top C [Track 15].

Or simply start at with Track 1, to experience how Rossini plunges the listener right into the cut and thrust of the action from the very opening bars. Then sample the burnished tones of heroic tenor Bruce Ford (Antenore), on commanding form in his cavatina ‘Che vidi! amici! oh eccesso!’ and his swaggering cabaletta ‘Sorte secondami!’ [Tracks 3 – 5].

Mezzo soprano Manuela Custer as Emma delivers the goods in dollops, too. Not least in the bravura aria ‘Ciel pietoso, ciel clemente" that Rossini wrote as an interpolated showpiece for the legendary Fanny Eckerlin, who sang the role at the opera’s Viennese premiere.

The final honours however go to La Futral, whose virtuoso soprano instrument evokes her great compatriot Beverly Sills in no small measure - both in range and flexibility. The diva brings the house to their feet, roaring in affirmation at the conclusion of her rendering of the jewel of rondo finale that Rossini bestowed on his wife, crowning a dazzling festival of coloratura brilliance with a sustained high E-flat that rings out gloriously.

Heady stuff, this recording of Zelmira occupies a place of honour among Opera Rara’s all-time greats. For more information, and to purchase Opera Rara releases, go to: - William Charlton-Perkins