As it generally goes with car insurance, when one older car is exchanged for another, the valuation of the old car is determined by the parts that remain in the car and how usable they will be when repurposed. By that logic, then, Gioachino Rossini’s 1813 Aureliano in Palmira, which was heard for the first time on this side of the Atlantic in its complete, original form at Caramoor on Saturday, should be an absolute gem – the overture as well as themes for “Ecco Ridente in Cielo” and “Io Sono Docile” were all taken from Aureliano and incorporated into the much better-known Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The opera that arrived at the Venetian Theater, though not a perfect piece (the “showpiece” arias aren’t particularly compelling across the board and the plot, which is adequately compelling, hardly requires all the music given to it), does, in fact, contain some gorgeous vocal writing (especially the duets for queen Zenobia and her prince Arsace) and rousing ensembles. Clocking in at nearly four hours and receiving a uniformly committed and capable presentation from the Bel Canto at Caramoor forces, this Rossini rarity is a fine example of the young composer’s music that would only tighten, both musically and dramatically, as his career progressed.
Director of Opera and conductor Will Crutchfield, who reassembled this critical edition in the absence of Rossini’s autograph manuscript, led the adept Orchestra of St. Luke’s (which even featured fortepiano continuo!) with vigor and intensity. So much vigor and intensity, in fact, that even the segments of the opera incorporated into Barbiere, the overture being a prime example, sounded outright bellicose and lacking in characteristic Rossini ebullience.
In the opera, Aureliano, a Roman general, has sieged Palmira with his armies and imprisoned the strong-willed queen Zenobia and her lover Arsace. But before too long, Aureliano falls in love with the captured queen who remains emphatically faithful to her prince. Despite much pleading and pining, Aureliano eventually frees the pair under the condition that they swear allegiance to Rome.
The role of Aureliano isn’t a particularly rewarding one – the really great music is saved for Arsace (originally sung by Giambattista Velluti, opera’s much-maligned final castrato) and his duets with Zenobia. Andrew Owens’ nondescript tenor was uneven (He could have been unwell – he sounded phlegmy at times and intermittently cleared his throat during rests.) – The voice is large and open at the top (though not all high notes were hit with equal finesse), but in the middle, it’s considerably smaller and he had a tendency to declaim Felice Romani’s serviceable text. Georgia Jarman was a statuesque Zenobia, but her voice, with a slight edge and a grainy sound across her entire range, didn’t consistently deliver when it came to Rossini’s elegantly arching vocal lines. And with the addition of distracting physical mannerisms during coloratura passages, this interpretation seemed a contradiction; unpolished but thoroughly prepared.
The star of the night was undeniably Tamara Mumford as Arsace whose rich but nimble mezzo was put on display here. Commanding a large voice with an incredible range, Mumford dominated her scenes with easy sound production and generous legato lines. And though her use of vibrato bordered on excessive, this was a brillliant interpretation and validated the strong case for Rossini’s music for Velluti as an especially significant historical document.
Among the smaller players, Chrystal E. Williams as Publia wielded a warm, superbly controlled mezzo in her single aria and Sean Christiansen was a commanding Oraspe, if he needed the first act to warm up a bit. Xiaomeng Zhang was an effective Licinio.
The ladies of the Bel Canto Young Artists sang well as the chorus, but there was occasionally some gruffness in the men’s chorus that caused some lapses in coordination between the two ensembles in the lengthy choral passages. In this semi-staged performance, the singers moved about with ease and purpose.
It’s a sad fact that what remains of Palmyra, located in modern-day Syria, has been badly damaged and destroyed by ISIL. But art has a way of making itself relevant, even though it may have been around for two hundred years. So, in some small way, this thoughtfully-executed Aureliano seemed a tribute to Palmyra itself. Though let’s hope that in this case, it doesn’t take 200 years of neglect to evoke its former glory.
*In the interest of full disclosure, I am employed by Caramoor, though this did not influence my opinion of the performance.