Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rossini Legends: The Birth of Bel Canto

Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira
Bel Canto at Caramoor
July 16, 2016

Se tu m'ami, o Regina
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Lui: An annual appointment with Bel Canto at Caramoor has quickly become a much-anticipated staple on our summer operatic calendar. The offerings in the bower of bliss that is the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in northern Westchester County have been consistently extraordinary. This year was no exception. Our encounter with Aureliano in Palmira was full of surprises and the thrill of discovery. As it turns out, this early Rossini gem served as a testing ground for many of the musical ideas that the composer would go on to recycle in dozens of other more immediately recognizable operas over the next several years. The experience was something akin to that of our recent brush with Giovanna d’Arco, in which the young Verdi introduced musical ideas that he would later go on to develop in his more memorable or canonical works.

Lei: Well, Rossini definitely practiced more straight “cut and paste” compared to Verdi who seemed to be a bit more nuanced. The overtures of Aureliano and Barbiere are identical. Same goes for Il Turco in Italia and Otello. Apparently Rossini liked to “rescue the best parts of his fiascos” or else just quote himself very often.

A portrait of the young Rossini
Lui: Rossini was hardly twenty-two years old in 1813 when he began working on Aureliano in Palmira, which is based on a rather insipid story that had already been set to music in 1789. It was his twelfth dramatic work to date and his second commission for La Scala in Milan, but more importantly it afforded him the opportunity to write for a castrato for the first and only time. And not just any castrato, mind you. The unique and innovative vocalist in question was Giovanni Battista Velluti, the last great castrato in the history of opera.

Lei: Aureliano’s  plot is indeed a bit all over the place. Roughly can be summarized in a couple of love triangles dramatized by Roman colonialism: Arsace (hot Persian prince) and Zenobia (Palmyra’s warrior queen) are in love and fight against the invading Roman army. Aureliano (powerful Roman emperor) is in love with Zenobia and tries to convince both her and Arsace to end their relationship so he can get the queen. Publia (sweet Roman girl) is in love with Arsace and tries to convince Aureliano not to kill the Persian prince. In the midst of all that, sieges, battles and imprisonments, escapes from imprisonments, parlays, death threats and blackmailings are thrown in. At the end of the day, though, Aureliano is an enlightened ruler and lets the loving couple live and rule together, as long as they pledge their fidelity to the Roman Empire. And everybody is happy in a very Clemenza-like fashion.

Stage setting from Act I of the original 1813 La Scala production
Lui: But the music and singing are particularly glorious. According to the story as it was very eloquently presented to us during one of the pre-show talks by the brilliant scholar and conductor, Will Crutchfield, Rossini’s encounter with Velluti, who was an extraordinary singer and musician, proved to be a decisive one both in the development of the composer’s later work and bel canto in general. The role of the Persian prince, Arsace, was written for Velluti and so it is fittingly adorned with many virtuosic embellishments. As legend has it, the music Rossini had initially written for Velluti was so changed by the vocalist’s idiosyncratic treatment of it in iteration after iteration during rehearsals that Rossini no longer recognized the slightest trace of the original skeleton he had composed. This is probably an exaggeration and an overstatement. However, philological evidence seems to suggest that Rossini himself incorporated some of Velluti’s idiosyncratic musical sensibility into his own later reappropriations of the Aureliano material. Maestro Crutchfield demonstrated that by having three mezzos sing the same melody (1) as originally written by Rossini; (2) as embellished by Velluti and (3) as repurposed in later Rossini works. Interestingly, melody #3 sounded extremely similar to #2. And we learned that the trick is all in the copious use of appoggiatura by castrati who used to basically free style and riff on a basic melodies by adding this type of embellishments.

Giovanni Battista Velluti
Lei: I always had a keen interest in the castrati as operatic rock stars of their times. After hearing the amazing Will Crutchfield demonstrate how castrati-typical embellishments truly propelled the bel canto style I love so much, I am even more of a fan. It was so mind blowing: Crutchfield played relatively plain and unrecognizable tunes, then played them again adding appoggiaturas and pouf! We had Casta Diva, Sempre libera and Una furtiva lagrima. We learned how composers from Donizetti to Verdi to Chopin all followed in those very same footsteps, adopting a similar distinctive use of appoggiatura to develop romantic melodies. I could listen to Crutchfield for hours, he is such a passionate, encyclopedic yet approachable bel canto master. And if nothing else, our encounter with this rare early Rossini gem with a mediocre plot was fruitful for this reason. It was like watching bel canto being born before our very eyes. But this is the kind of discovery we have to expect from our little jaunts up to the bucolic idylls of Katonah. Crutchfield is that good.

Stage setting from Act II of the original 1813 La Scala production
Lui: Here the castrato role of Arsace was sung by the excellent mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. After having heard about all of the musical and artistic vicissitudes surrounding Arsace and its genesis, I was intrigued to hear what Mumford would do with it. She did justice to it and then some. She is one of those singers who never just goes through the motions. She was fierce and sexy in Arsace’s pants role, strutting around in military fashion, lovingly protecting Zenobia and disdainfully rejecting Aureliano’s proposals. Mumford is just such a pleasure to watch. While she didn’t seem to take Velluti’s lead in introducing a decadent overabundance of embellishment to her vocal lines, she embodied them with poise and grace and feeling. The very first moment we meet her Arsace, she is delivering one of the opera’s most famous duets, Se tu m’ami, o Regina and it was one of those time-stopping moments. Mumford truly is an exciting singer, with intense electricity in her voice and acting chops to match that, even in a semi-staged production as this one.

Lovers reunited
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Soprano Georgia Jarman in the role of the intrepid Syrian queen was right in sync with Mumford from this duet on. Many of the high points of the night came from the vocal fireworks these two produced every time they were in one another’s presence. In Se tu m’ami, they embodied love and longing in brilliant flights of fancy that brought a tear to my eye and sent a tingle down my spine. It was quite a first showing from both of these singers. And they maintained that emotional pitch right up to their final ecstatic love duet in which the two separated lovers are brought back together through the clemency of the great Roman ruler Aureliano. Jarman also sounded great by herself, her bright coloratura soprano was truly a pleasure to hear.  

Andrew Owens brought his bel canto trained tenor to the role of Aureliano, whom he played with a headstrong and haughty imperial air. He may not have the most exciting tenor sound but his light, bright instrument had all the agility required of a Rossinian tenor. He was more than competent, but not terribly exciting, though to be fair that is not necessarily the nature of the character. It may be the title role, but the emotional core of the opera lies in the thwarted love between the lionhearted Arsace and the bold but lovely Zenobia. Owens is a proud product of the Caramoor workshop and he seemed triumphantly at home on the stage of the Venetian Theater.

Aureliano's imperial air
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams was heart wrenching as Publia, admittedly a minor role. In her ultimate game-changing plea to Aureliano for clemency, forgiveness and love, Williams poured out her soul with plush and melodic tones. She pulled at both his and our heartstrings in her confession of affection for the poor imprisoned Arsace. Yes, it was an awkwardly structured story of a love triangle that featured a nod perhaps to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, with its eleventh hour deus ex machina reconciliatory climax. Nevertheless, Williams brought emotional depth to her peripheral role in shaping the conclusion of the story. This is definitely a singer to watch out for. 

Baritone Ziaomeng Zhang in the role of Licinio was also remarkable. His low sound was warm and smooth and surprisingly deep and powerful for a singer of his size. He commanded the respect and attention of the cast and the public. Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artist baritone Thomas Lynch as the high priest of Palmyra delivered a chilling, thundering and threatening opening of the opera with confidence and perfect diction.

Lei: Next year Bel Canto at Caramoor will present Bellini’s Il Pirata and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. We will, of course, run there with our picnic basket, ready as always to be enchanted and blown away by Will Crutchfield and his team.

– Lui & Lei

Maestro Crutchfield at work
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio

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