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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Opera Review: Figaro's Bigger Brother

Caramoor exhumes Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Will Crutchfield (left) conducting the chorus at Caramoor.
The maestro led the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira on Saturday.
Photo by Gabe Palacios © 2016 Caramoor Festival for the Performing Arts.
Giachino Rossini was one of the most prolific and pragmatic opera composers of the nineteenth century. A master of melodious arias and rousing choral crescendoes, he composed opera naturally and easily, tossing off a string of thirty-eight operas before retiring from the stage at that same age. Aureliano in Palmira was written for La Scala, and was an ambitious work in the opera seria mode. However, it tanked on opening night and sunk into the mists of opera history.

Three years later, Rossini recycled the overture and two of the big arias from his failed work into the hastily written score of The Barber of Seville.  A devotional chorus to the goddess Isis became Count Almaviva's ode to his lover. A battle hymn became the cabaletta of Rosina's Una voce poco fa. And the overture was lifted whole and used twice, not just for Barber but for another forgotten work: Elisabetta, Reghina di Inglaterra.

Luckily for New Yorkers, it was Bel Canto at Caramoor director Will Crutchfield who spearheaded the effort to complete a new critical edition of Aureliano and get that new edition performed and even filmed at the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's home-town of Pesaro, Italy. On Saturday, July 16, Mr. Crutchfield brought Aureliano to the Caramoor Festival, with a strong cast of young singers and the expert accompaniment of the Orchestra of St. Luke's.

The show was two marathon acts, a Rossinian take on the operatic conventions that ruled the stage in the 18th century. The plot was drawn from Roman history: specifically the efforts of Roman emperor Aurelian (Andrew Owens) to expand his realm into Palmyra (now part of present-day Syria.) Opposing him: Palmyran queen Zenobia (Georgia Jarman) and her lover Arsace (Tamara Mumford, in a part originally written for a castrato.) The lively music and strong cast made this dusty tale spring to vivid life.

Aureliano follows the conventions of opera seria, with strict division between recitative (used for plot advancement and explaining relationships between singers) and arias, reserved for emotional reactions.The Caramoor Festival chorus trooped onstage, representing Roman soldiers, the priests of Isis and even a group of shepherds maintaining their (invisible) flocks along the banks of the Euphrates river. Orchestral and choral performances were crisp and prepared throughout, evidence of Mr. Crutchfield's detailed and scholarly leadership.

The star of the evening was Ms. Mumford, singing this dizzying and electrifying music with great control both above and below the stave. The part of Arsace was created for the legendary castrato Giambbatista Vellutti, and features some of Rossini's most challenging writing for the voice. Ms. Mumford carried the Palmyran general's heroic spirit and love for Zenobia, making the most out of a stock character with her vocal heroics.

One of the reasons that Rossini's catalogue went out of vogue (with the exception of Barber) is that tenors stopped singing in the high, upper-register style that he favored. As Aureliano, Andrew Owens joined the ranks of singers that have found recent success with that style, although his instrument started to show wear in the second half of this very long evening. Ms. Jarman contributed her own vocal fireworks as Zenobia, capturing the besieged queen's essential nobility and passion for Arsace in a barn-burning duet that was the jaw-dropping highlight of the first act.

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