Rossini: Zelmira

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LABELS: Opera Rara
WORKS: Zelmira
PERFORMER: Bruce Ford, Mirco Palazzi, Marco Vinco, Elizabeth Futral, Manuela Custer, Antonino Siragusa; Scottish CO & Chorus/Maurizio Benini
Even by the flimsy standards of opera seria, the plot of Zelmira, Rossini’s last opera for Naples, is a ludicrous farrago of contrivances and implausibilities. But the music, as revealed by this 2003 Edinburgh Festival performance, is a different matter. As ever in Rossini’s serious operas, buffo frivolity is always liable to intrude, with jolly cabaletta sendoffs and irreverently chortling woodwind that could have breezed in from The Barber of Seville. Amid a fair amount of vapid brilliance, though, this ‘card-house of a plot’, to quote Jeremy Commons’s superb introductory essay, inspired some of Rossini’s most eloquent and delicately scored music. One number, the limpid duet with harp and keening cor anglais for the put-upon heroine and her confidante Emma, quickly achieved popularity away from the opera itself. Other highlights include the fractured duet of misunderstanding between Zelmira and her husband Prince Ilo, and the beautiful slow episode (shades here of the canon quartets in Fidelio and Così) amid the defiance and fire-spitting coloratura of the Act II quintet. For the 1822 premiere, Rossini mustered some of the finest singers of the day, including his wife-to-be Isabella Colbran. Perhaps they eclipsed their Edinburgh counterparts in smoothness and elegance of style. But it would be hard to put together a stronger contemporary cast than this, led by Elizabeth Futral, by turns plangent and imperiously brilliant in the title role. Bruce Ford, unequalled among Rossini tenors for mingled power and agility, does all he can for the blustering villain Antenore; as his opponent Ilo, Antonino Siragusa, despite the odd touch of strain, reveals an attractive, nimble tenore di grazia, while Marco Vino’s oaky bass makes much of the darkly elegiac music for Zelmira’s father Polidoro. A word, too, for Manuela Custer’s shapely, heartfelt singing of Emma’s Act II prayer. Dramatically absurd it may be. But with singing as good as this, and lively, stylish direction from Maurizio Benini, Zelmira proves well worth rescuing from the dustier corners of the Rossini archives. Richard Wigmore