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Rossini Zelmira

Antenore - Bruce Ford, Leucippo - Mirco Palazzi, Polidoro - Marco Vinco, Zelmira - Elizabeth Futral, Emma - Manuela Custer, Ilo - Antonino Siragusa, Eacide - Ashley Catling, High Priest - Mathias Hausmann.
Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus/Maurizio Benini

Recorded live at the Edinburgh International Festival August 2003 [3 hrs]
Opera Rara ORC27 - [3 CDs £37.50]

Knowledgeable critics assure us that there is a lot wrong with Rossini's Zelmira (1822), but by the sound of the enthusiastic (if for CD listening excessively prolonged) applause, the audience at Usher Hall didn't let it bother them. Nor did I, though it was interesting, as always, to read the critical reactions as detailed in Opera Rara's devotedly researched historical commentary, and to learn how the opera's rating has varied, simultaneously as well as sequentially, over the nearly two centuries since its premiere. Composed a year after Semiramide, this is its first complete recording.

No doubt at all however that it was an exciting Edinburgh Festival evening, and that excitement comes across palpably in the recording, full of life and strenuous endeavour. You are with those singers, who are giving their best that night. No patching (so far as I know?) and there are some moments that will not have satisfied the singers, but I found it grabbed you and held you - though I don't usually listen to full length operas all in one sitting.

What gives these Opera Rara productions unique anticipatory pleasure is their lavish presentation, with seductive books, too large and fat to fit with the discs into the jewel case. Printed on good quality paper, with decent size black print for easy reading, it is a pleasure to turn the pages and meet wonderful illustrations and photos along the way. I doubt if opera buffs who buy Rossini's serious operas take much account of their libretti, and this one has important faults of credibility and organisation which are fully discussed, but the important thing as you listen is what is happening now, in one exciting moment after another.

There is a lot to absorb of happenings prior to curtain-up, but it soon becomes clear who are the villains and that Zelmira, who is subjected to a string of false accusations, is actually our wronged heroine; she had contrived to keep the rightful king of Lesbos alive after a coup until he could regain his throne for the happy ending....... Deception and misunderstanding keeps lives hanging by a thread, with Zelmira's husband tricked into believing her guilty of parricide and regicide, but disaster and execution of the innocent is averted at the last moment, and the villainous pretender and his murderous henchman are despatched to their well-earned doom.

The score is variable on cool analysis, but interesting for its continuity from recitative to aria, and long musico-dramatic paragraphs, musically improving in the second act. Bruce Ford, the anti-hero, and Elizabeth Futral as Zelmira take the leads, but Manuela Custer, as Zelmira's best friend, and Antonino Siragusa as her bemused husband (a notable high tenor), deservedly won the audience's plaudits, with Marco Vinco's dignified bel canto bass giving satisfaction as the king in waiting. There is plenty of spectacular singing in bravura roles of great difficulty, and the microphones were well placed to bring it all into our homes.

Zelmira goes well under the adroit supervision of Maurizio Benini, with brilliant idiomatic Rossini playing by the the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and lusty singing by what sounds like an augmented Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus; another triumph for Opera Rara, whose productions can become addictive even for collectors for whom rare 19th C opera may not be their central interest.



© Peter Grahame Woolf