|Sean Christensen, Thomas Lynch, Tamara Mumford and Georgia Jarman in Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira|
Upon hearing the overture to Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira, one might be forgiven for believing that one had mistakenly wandered into a production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. At the age of 20, Rossini had already composed nearly a dozen operas and in this long-forgotten one, we hear the young master literally bursting with melodic invention and injecting romantic notions into moribund classical forms and themes.
Due to a number of problematic issues, the 1813 production amounted to a stillbirth with body parts harvested for future operas. Il Barbiere di Siviglia would not be composed for another 3 years with Aureliano's music repurposed; the autograph version of Aureliano in Palmira was lost. There was no authoritative score extant--until now, when Caramoor's Director of Opera, Maestro Will Crutchfield, accepted the invitation of Pesaro's Rossini Foundation and laboriously reconstructed a version of the score, restoring all the original music. We are not at all surprised that this version won first place for 'Best Rediscovered Work' at the 2016 International Opera Awards in London.
None of this history means anything unless the results are both artistic and entertaining. Thanks to Caramoor's sensational casting decisions and Rossini's magnificent music, the nearly four-hour semi-staged production seemed to fly by. The libretto by the equally young Felice Romani relates a very simple story. Roman Emperor Aureliano does battle with Palmyran Princess Zenobia who is assisted by her loyal lover Arsace, Prince of Persia.
The Romans keep winning and Aureliano, who has fallen in love with the warrior princess Zenobia, suffers from ambivalence. He wants to win Zenobia and push Arsace out of the picture; he wants also to punish the rebellious pair; but he also admires their steadfastness and eventually forgives them in a magnanimous gesture.
An amicable solution is found. They will be free to continue their relationship and to rule if they swear allegiance to Rome. So we have neither comedy nor tragedy but an opera seria with a happy ending. There is no onstage action, just a musical exploration of the characters' feelings.
In this production it was the consummate artistry of the singers that successfully conveyed the emotional nature of the characters. An uncredited lighting designer flooded the backdrop with colors that suited the emotions being expressed. It was simple but effective.
As Zenobia, Georgia Jarman, a soprano whom we greatly enjoyed at the Santa Fe Opera as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto, handled this difficult role with ease. Gilda is an ingenue but Zenobia is a warrior; she must convey great strength in the role, but also tenderness in her divine duets with Arsace. Her facility with vocal coloring was matched by the force of her sound and the accuracy of her phrasing and embellishments.
Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, whom we so highly praised as Smeaton in Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera, made a superb showing as Arsace. The role was written for a famous castrato of that time and we are happy to report that Ms. Mumford appeared to have made no sacrifices, anatomic or artistic. Her burnt umber timbre made her completely convincing and the involvement with which she approached the role was stunning. She too brought out all the subtle refinements of color in her character--different colors for the lover and the warrior. Her prolonged second act aria offered more fireworks than Independence Day.
Tenor Andrew Owens, heretofore unknown to us, handled the role of Aureliano well enough, but if we had to place him as either lover or warrior, the timbre of his voice leans more toward that of a tender lover. Of course, the way his character is written, he is not given to raging and fuming. In any case, he produced a sweet sound!
Regular readers know by now how much we love duets and this work has a plethora of stirring duets, both confrontational and romantic. The romantic duets between Zenobia and Arsace could melt the coldest heart! And their mutual devotion in fact succeeded in melting the heart of Aureliano.
Paving the way for Verdi was Rossini's luxurious choral writing. Members of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and Apprentices sounded sensational whether they were priests praying (to the tune of Fiorello's serenade of Rosina) or shepherds and shepherdesses sheltering Arsace when he escaped from prison. Props to Chorus Master Derrick Goff.
Three young artists excelled in small roles. Tenor Sean Christensen sang beautifully as Oraspe, the Palmyran General. We have been writing about Mr. Christensen for a couple of years and are so pleased by his artistic growth. It has been slightly over a year since we reviewed Xiaomeng Zhang Master's Degree Recital at Manhattan School of Music and it delighted us to witness his excellent performance as Licinio, a Roman tribune.
New to us were mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams who made a successful appearance as Publia, a Roman noblewoman crushing on Arsace and baritone Thomas Lynch who made a fine High Priest of Palmyra. Now that we've heard them we will surely be looking forward to future opportunities.
We also spotted some young artists in the chorus whom we have heard and enjoyed onstage in New York City. Mezzo-soprano Madison Marie McIntosh is lovely in so many roles, and was recently heard in Beethoven's Fidelio as Marzelline, with the New Amsterdam Opera; and Alison Cheeseman made a lovely lead in Massenet's Cendrillon at Utopia Opera. How exciting to see them onstage in the chorus.
Maestro Crutchfield conducted as if he'd written the work himself which is understandable, considering his personal involvement. We could not find the names of the instrumentalists in the program but were impressed by the harpsichordist, the first violin who had an excellent solo, and some fine sounding horns.
What a wonderful gift Mr. Crutchfield gave to the opera world, discovering and refurbishing a memorable masterpiece that Rossini himself probably forgot.
(c) meche kroop