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Rossini's Aureliano Goes Forth (With Goats)

by Charles Jernigan

(Photographs by studio amati bacciardi, courtesy of the Rossini Festival, Pesaro)

September 24, 2014

An article giving some background and comment on the recent production of Rossini's Aureliano in Palmira at the 2014 Rossini Festival in Pesaro.

The most interesting opera played at this year's Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, was Aureliano in Palmira. It is one of the composer's most obscure scores about a Roman emperor few people have heard of, and, as those of us at the Festival this year discovered, even if we thought we were among the few folks in the opera loving world to know Aureliano, we didn't.

In the Enlightenment the Roman Emperor Aurelian was mythologized like the Emperor Titus, as a benign monarch who brought a harmonious rule to his grateful subjects. Mozart had celebrated this myth of the enlightened sovereign in La clemenza di Tito. The libretto, by the young Felice Romani, was based on an eighteenth century model, a libretto by Gaetano Sertor for an opera by Anfossi called Zenobia in Palmira, which premiered in 1789, two years before the premiere of Tito. If the story is rooted in the Enlightenment, however, many aspects of the opera declare an emerging Romanticism, including Romani's poetry, the extensive use of the chorus and the importance of ensembles.

The real Zenobia was Queen of the Empire of Palmyra, which rebelled against Roman rule. Aurelian set out to subdue her and reconquer her territory. Zenobia was taken prisoner and brought with her son to Rome, where she was

       Act 2 set by Alessandro Sanquirico (from Wikipedia)


probably paraded in the Emperor's triumphal victory procession. What then happened to the real Zenobia is a matter of conjecture, but it is quite possible that she survived, married a Roman aristocrat and had more children by him, becoming a respected figure in the Eternal City. If so, then Aurelian would have pardoned her, and it is this clemency along with his tendency to spare conquered cities from fire and pillage that created his reputation as an enlightened ruler.

If Aurelian is a little known emperor today, it is safe to say that Rossini's version of his campaign in Palmyra, Aureliano in Palmira, is less well known than its eponymous subject, even among Rossini enthusiasts. When it opened at La Scala in 1813 there were already several operas about Zenobia, who must have been a formidable queen indeed. Of course there is a love triangle which is operatically convenient if unhistorical. Zenobia (whose husband had died) is loved by Arsace, a Persian prince allied with her forces against the Romans. Aureliano takes them both prisoner, but he is struck by Zenobia's beauty and intelligence, and offers her his own hand, which she refuses because she loves Arsace. After much back and forth, Aureliano proves himself a clement ruler, pardons them both, and everyone ends the work praising the gracious monarch's wisdom.

For the premiere at La Scala, Rossini hoped to have Giovanni David, one of the greatest tenors of the time, for the part of Aureliano, but he came down with smallpox, and had to withdraw. His replacement was inadequate, or perhaps did not have sufficient time to learn the role. The role of the Persian Prince, Arsace was sung by Gian Battista Velluti, the last castrato to sing in opera, but for reasons that are unclear, Velluti was not well received, and seems to have had a conflict with Rossini; although his career continued for another twenty years, he did not sing in another Rossini opera. In short, the opera had only moderate success, but Rossini, never one to let failure get in the way of good music, put a lot of the music to use, including the overture, in The Barber of Seville three years later. That overture also served for Rossini's debut opera in Naples, Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, another work which praised another enlightened monarch, and by extension the Neapolitan kings who controlled the opera house there. Also transitioning to The Barber was the opening chorus which becomes Almaviva's morning seranade "Ecco ridente" and Arsace's cabaletta ("Non lasciarmi") which becomes Rosina's cabaletta "Io sonodocile."

The score was heard this year for the first time at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro on the occasion of the completion of a critical edition by the multi-talented Will Crutchfield. As a scholar/editor, Crutchfield has done astonishing work here, revealing around an hour of new music for this opera, new music not heard since 1813, if at all. The difference makes this a work almost four hours long with a lot of first-rate music.(The recent Opera Rara recording, by way of contrast, is about 2 hours and 45 minutes long.) Aureliano isrevealed not as a minor work, but a work of major proportions and qualities, worthy to stand beside Rossini's other breakout operas of 1813, Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri. Apparently the last minute change of tenors for the role of Aureliano forced Rossini to severely cut the work, making it appear to be less developed musically and dramatically than was originally intended. Dare we say it? Crutchfield's restoration work has given us a new masterpiece.

   Publia (Raffaella Lupinacci) & Aureliano (Michael Spyres)

The tenor who was supposed to sing Aureliano, Giovanni David, was evidently (to use a popular current term) a "baritenor," someone able to sing high"C's" and above, but also to plumb the baritone register. Today, we are very fortunate to have such a singer in Michael Spyres, the heroic "baritenor" from Missouri who can sing all of Aureliano's inspired music, and a daunting role it is. Spyres brought down the house, more than once; his music leaves no doubt that his character is forceful and courageous. His Zenobia was the astonishing Jennifer Pratt, an Australian sometimes mentioned, perhaps fancifully, as the inheritor of

Joan Sutherland’s mantle, or as one wag defined her at intermission, Katia Ricciarelli on steroids. She is a tall blonde with a formidable figure and a huge voice with remarkable bel canto technique. The real Zenobia must have been one tough lady, and so is Ms. Pratt! And she can act. Together, Spyres and Pratt made the sparks fly and raised the goose bumps. In the Velluti role of Arsace, we had mezzo soprano Lena Belkina.The Uzbek mezzo held her own in the pants role with a rich voice, although she was not quite at the same level as Spyres and Pratt. Will Crutchfield himself conducted the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini and the chorus of Bologna's Teatro Communale.

Arsace (Lisa Belkina) and Zenobia (Jessica Pratt)          

It was interesting to hear the overture, which we associate with comedy, played more slowly and with slightly different emphases, which makes perfect sense when we realize that the slower tempo and shifted emphases accord with the pastoral and warlike elements in the score.In fact this is an unusual overture for Rossini, in that many of its elements are tied directly to music we hear in the opera, especially in the finale to Act I. Hearing it in this context, it makes perfect sense that the overture was conceived for a serious work andn ot a comedy, if for a moment we can remove Bugs Bunny from our mind's ear. In fact, there are both battle scenes and pastoral scenes in Aureliano, defining the two sides of the work's classical philosophy: pastoral-love-clemency and war-anger-conflict. There is even one scene where we have shepherds and farmers tending their flocks and tilling the soil, set to pastoral music which is wonderfully suggestive.In Mario Martone's production, four goats were brought on stage.Goats on stage! The goats munched happily away at branches while the chorus sang, although one inquisitive goat walked to the front of the stage and peered into the orchestra pit before returning to a luscious branch with leaves. What must it have thought, watching the orchestra members fiddling away? It was charming even if the goats briefly upstaged the music.

Zenobia and Arsace            

                             Aureliano, Arsace and Zenobia

Martone's production moved the sometimes confusing story along with admirable clarity, although the set and costumes were bargain basement, especially the sets, probably reflecting the continuing economic crisis in Italy. One could lament the lack of painterly sets and costumes such as those depicted in old prints in the opera program, but sometimes enforced economy is the mother of invention. There were Roman breastplates, but no togas - probably a good thing. Ms. Pratt had a stunning gold gown that matched her long blond tresses. Regieteater was mostly kept at bay, but crept in twice: Martone kept the continuo players (fortepiano and cello) on stage most of the time, and sometimes the fortepiano player interacted with the singers in a little bit of Brechtian nonsense. And there was the finaletto. While everyone sang a final chorus in praise of Aureliano's clemency and the return of happy days to "Asia," a projection in Italian and English on a scrim related the grimmest view of what might have happened to the real Zenobia (that she was tortured, paraded in Rome and executed), quoted Edward Said about European domination of the "orient" and referred to the continuing bloodletting in that sad part of the world. It was unnecessary, had nothing to do with opera, and detracted from the vaudeville finale. The world of Aureliano like that of Clemenza di Tito might be hopeful myth and contrary to the awful news from that part of the world, but it is that myth of the beneficent ruler and peace and love restored that the opera celebrates.


A review (in Italian) of the opera by Lukas Franceschini can be found at