Zelmira

 

Rossini Zelmira opera to a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola. Directed 2009 by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti at the Rossini Festival Pesaro. Stars Alex Esposito (Polidora), Kate Aldrich (Zelmira), Juan Diego Flórez (Ilo), Gregory Kunde (Antenore), Marianna Pizzolato (Emma), Mirco Palazzi (Leucippo), Francisco Brito (Eocide), and Sávio Sperandio (Gran Sacerdote di Giove). Roberto Abbado conducts the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale de Bologna (Chorus Master Paolo Vero). Set design by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti and Cristian Taraborrelli; costume design by Cristian Taraborrelli and Angela Buscemi; lighting design by Gianluca Cappelletti; directed for video by Tiziano Mancini. Released 2012, disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B+

This serious opera was performed a few times during Rossini's lifetime. In the 141 years from his death in 1868 until 2009, Zelmira was produced maybe 3 times. There are a few CDs with the music, but this is the first video ever made of Zelmira. When this came out, I wondered why Decca would publish it. But then I noticed that the title quickly climbed high on the Blu-ray opera best-seller lists at MDT and Presto (UK record vendors). Obviously, there is some good buzz from opera experts going around about this title.

The buzz could not be coming from the confusing libretto, which has about as much back-story as it has plot. The Trojan Prince Ilo, whose name is related (directly or through a relative with the same name) to the Trojan town of Ilion and the Iliad of Homer, allied himself with King Polidoro of Lesbos. Ilo married Polidoro's daughter, Zelmira, and they have a baby boy destined to be the King. Ilo left Lesbos on a military mission. Polidoro was too old to keep things under control, and usurpers moved to steal the throne.

At the opening of the opera, we see the corpse of Azor, the first usurper, who thought he had killed King Polidoro in a fire.  But Azor was promptly murdered by the second usurper, Antenore. Azor would be a good role for me: you don't have to sing, say, or do anything:

Polidoro did not die in the fire. He was hidden by Zelmira in the family tomb where Zelmira visits him. Surrounded by spies, Zelmira feeds her father by sharing her baby's milk with him:

Zelmira has a trusted servant, Emma, who joins Polidoro and Zelmira at the tomb. The fallen statutes of the gods arise (where they will stay for the rest of the opera) as the three slather the audience with coloratura:

This production is full of special effects using tilted mirrors behind the stage and other physical devices. Sometimes the mirrors show another view of the protagonists on stage. The mirrors can also show special images create by live actors under the stage who are seen through a steel mesh that forms part of the stage floor. At other times, it appears that live actors are present at different levels on back of the stage and in front of the mirrors. Finally, large images are projected that seem to be behind the protagonists on the stage. I think these images are made by projectors in the fly space that are aimed at the stage floor. The images are then reflected by the mirrors from the floor out to the audience.

The best thing about these effects is that they don't use computer-generated graphics---everything is analog. But they can also be confusing and distract attention from the singers. If you are interested in stagecraft, there is a bonus feature that touches on technical tricks used in this production.

The screenshot below reveals the entire "understage", which is covered with sand. The actors (in this scene, I think, wounded soldiers) move about the crawl space on their backs or bellies in a strange working environment. The soldiers standing on the stage to your left are too close to the front of the stage to be reflected in the mirror. But the soldiers standing on the right are closer to the rear of the stage, and you can see them from above in the upper right corner of the mirror:

Finally, Juan Diego Flórez returns home and has an aria. On opening night, he got a 20 minute ovation:

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Zelmira doesn't know how to explain everything to her husband:

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Now Antenore (the second usurper who killed Azor) celebrates his coronation under a giant sign with the Greek letters spelling (in English equivalent) "pseudos" or fake:

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Leucippo, Antenore's henchman, tried to kill the sleeping Ilo with a knife. Zelmira surprises Leucippo and gets the knive from him.  When Ilo awakes, the ever-resourceful Leucippo makes it look as if Zelmira was trying to kill Ilo! This could only happen in real opera; in no other form of literature (even soap opera) would such a ridiculous turn of events be acceptable: 

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Emma, in an aria that would suck sighs out of a cinder-block, begs the women of Lesbos to hide the royal baby from the murderers:

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The women agree and the baby is saved. Marianna Pizzolato as Emma looks a bit pleased with herself because she has just committed a perfect crime. The verdict: Guilty! The charge: theft by a small role of a grand opera:

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Now Ilo learns that his wife has been faithful after all:

And all is well at the end:

There is a lot of beautiful music in this opera. The Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale de Bologna performs well. Each singer in this production has the horsepower to hit every note with ease, and each singer is the right age and has the right look for his part.

The sound quality is great. Tiziano Mancini provides terrific videos images with sharp resolution and beautiful color. Video content is also fine with a good mix long-range shots and close-ups. The special effects are intriguing, and most of them look fairly good in HD. (They probably will be quite difficult to follow in the DVD version.)

I'll give this title the grade of "B+." I think the weak libretto for this work would keep this from ever being an "A" title. But any fan of 19th century opera will probably like this a lot, and this Decca recording may well be the standard recording of Zelmira for a long time.