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Rossini: Aureliano In Palmira / Tarver, Smith, Benini

Rossini / London Philharmonic Orch / Benini
Release Date: 10/09/2012 
Label:  Opera Rara   Catalog #: 46   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Gioachino Rossini
Performer:  Andrew Foster-WilliamsSilvia Tro SantafeCatriona SmithKenneth Tarver,   ... 
Conductor:  Maurizio Benini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic OrchestraGeoffrey Mitchell Choir
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ROSSINI Aureliano in Palmira Maurizio Benini, cond; Kenneth Tarver ( Aureliano ); Catriona Smith ( Zenobia ); Silvia Tro Santafé ( Arsace ); Andrew Foster-Williams ( High Priest of Isis ); Ezgi Kutlu ( Publia ); Julian Alexander Smith ( Oraspe ); Read more Vuyani Mlinde ( Licinio ); Geoffrey Mitchell Ch; London PO OPERA RARA 46 (3 CDs: 168:03 Text and Translation)

Rossini liked to cultivate the airs of a lazy bon vivant , but in reality he was a hard worker with a gift for absolute concentration when required. The year 1812 saw the premiere of five new operas of his, and 1813 witnessed another four. His star was rising; Tancredi and L’italiana in Algeri in particular proved very popular. This pair were quickly followed by another opera seria , his first work for Milan’s prestigious Teatro alla Scala, Aureliano in Palmira . It was only a minor success. The music was not received well in some critical quarters, but the singers were found thoroughly inadequate to the task at hand. Aureliano did receive 14 performances, however, and was subsequently revived through 1832 in a number of Italian cities, as well as London and Paris. Rossini’s growing reputation made sure of that, even if the opera wasn’t considered among his top drawer efforts.

One of those revivals took place in Rome. That was years after Il barbiere debuted there in 1816, because Rossini reused a few sections of Aureliano within it; and an obvious self-borrowing in a new opera would have caused a public uproar over secondhand goods. (It was common during the Baroque era to mine one’s earlier operas in this way, and that remained standard practice for a long time. The stake through its heart was driven by the Ricordi publishing house in the mid 1850s, when they began issuing authorized vocal scores, making risk of exposure for self-borrowing much more likely.) The most noticeable instances a listener will discover in Aureliano are its overture and first chorus, “Sposa del grande Osiride,” that also form the overture and “Ecco ridente” in Il barbiere . If you’ve ever wondered why the themes in Il barbiere ’s overture don’t appear later in the opera, when they do so in most of Rossini’s work, look no further than Aureliano , where you’ll discover them time and again.

This juxtaposition leads to a perplexing issue confronting anyone today who listens to Aureliano and its early opera seria siblings in Rossini’s oeuvre: a sternly serious libretto married to music permeated by a sly wit and deft, feather-light touch. There are a few noteworthy dramatic passages in this opera that distantly prefigure Semiramide, Mosé , and even Guglielmo Tell , such as Arsace’s recitativo accompagnato , “Eccomi, ingiusti Numi,” and the various extended duets between Aureliano and Zenobia. (But again, the jaunty wrong-note march that introduces Aureliano in his act I, scene 14 duet with Zenobia sounds like a close cousin to the one that announces Count Almaviva when he appears disguised as a drunken soldier.) And there are others that introduce an unexpected but welcome element of pathos, such as the theme Arsace sings to the lines “Ah, per lei ch’io porto in petto/Il mio capo t’abbandono” in her act I, scene 6 duet with Aureliano. But if the libretto is set to one side and the verses ignored, much of the music could easily pass today for good to excellent Rossinian opera buffa —despite the fact that audiences of the time were deeply impressed by the work’s dramatic vitality. Granted, the musically expressive vocabulary of Italian opera had narrowed considerably since Leonardo Vinci and his successors devised a smoothly generic style of writing in the early 18th century in reaction against the complexities of Baroque opera, but it’s difficult to understand why the parodying element in Rossini’s early serious works we perceive all too clearly should have gone unnoticed at the time.

Aureliano in Palmira has received two previous recordings. Corti/I Virtuosi di Praga (Bongiovanni 2201/2-2) is dismal, marred by ugly voices and unstylish singing that ignores dynamics and period-appropriate ornamentation, despite a fine orchestra. Zani/Lucca Teatro del Giglio Lyric (Nuova Era 23733) has a terrible orchestra, and singers who for the most part are only marginally better than their Bongiovanni counterparts. Both productions are provincial in the worst sense of the word. Opera Rara wouldn’t have far to go to improve on these performances.

Yet they go quite a bit further. Silvia Tro Santafé is a dark mezzo whose fast vibrato lends an edge of excitement to her timbre. Her coloratura work is excellent, with strong breath support, and she’s considerably improved since I reviewed her in a Rossini arias album three years ago (Signum 170), with stronger interpretative points throughout. I still miss any bowing of the line in “Perchè mai le luci aprimmo,” which cries out for it, but the thread of her legato is seamless; and she’s learned to soften the flicker of her tone on occasion. Kenneth Tarver is just as good as he was in the 2003 Barcelona production of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims (Arthaus Musik 107 135), stylish, accurate, and agile in handling his figurations, with a real grasp of his character’s imperious manner, and the drama inherent in the words. Catriona Smith also has a good understanding of her character’s strong emotional responses, with a fine lyric soprano that suffers unfortunately from a slight beat. (Considering she’s been singing professionally for more than a quarter of a century, that’s perhaps not surprising.) In cantabile music, such as “Serena I bei rai,” with its slow figurations, she’s excellent, but faster passagework is only moderately successful. Andrew Foster-Williams makes an effective High Priest, better in the higher notes of the role than in its depths, with good enunciation and projection. The other parts are minor, commanding attention only during secco recitative. Maurizio Benini paces sensibly, with an eye to the work’s theatrical dimension, and works hand-in-glove with his soloists. The London Philharmonic clearly relishes the quality of Rossini’s writing, and the engineering faithfully reproduces it all in detail.

If there’s a case to be made for Aureliano I Palmira today—and I think there is, at the very least on a purely musical level, usually divorced from dramatic context—Opera Rara makes it here. The two other recordings can safely be ignored. This is the one to get.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

Aureliano in Palmira by Gioachino Rossini
Performer:  Andrew Foster-Williams (Bass Baritone), Silvia Tro Santafe (Mezzo Soprano), Catriona Smith (Soprano),
Kenneth Tarver (Tenor), Ezgi Kutlu (Mezzo Soprano), Julian Alexander Smith (Tenor),
Vuyani Mlinde (Bass)
Conductor:  Maurizio Benini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1813; Italy 

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