Federico Saachi, Silvia Dalla Benetta, Mert Süngü, Joshua Stewart, Marina Comparato, Luca Dall’Amico, Xiang Xu, Emmanuel Franco (voices); Górecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis/Gianluigi Gelmetti
Naxos 8.660468-70 174.51 mins (3 discs)
Zelmira was Rossini’s farewell to Naples in 1822 – he was ambitious at that point to become a European composer, not just an Italian one. So within months Zelmira made its way to Vienna, then to London and finally to Paris in 1826 where Giuditta Pasta took the title role. This is the version that Naxos recorded at the Wildbad Festival in Germany in 2017.
The libretto is shipwrecked by its own implausibility. Why has Zelmira’s father Polidoro, the deposed king of Lesbos, gone into hiding? Has Ilo, the heroine’s Trojan husband, good reason to doubt his wife? And the plotting by the new usurper Antenore in Act II is risible. But Rossini knew what his patrons wanted to hear. The ancient regimes that Bonaparte had challenged were back on their thrones: so this is an opera about succession and legitimacy within a ruling family.
The music is a magnificent mix of everything that Rossini had polished in Naples – grand marches, hair-raising crescendos, bubbling woodwinds and dizzying cabalettas. But there are also hints of a new harmonic world that was surely designed to appeal to Vienna.
The Wildbad cast hesitates at first but Mert Süngü’s Ilo gains in confidence even if strained under pressure – which bel canto tenor isn’t today? Joshua Stuart is a dark-voiced villain as Antenore. But best of all are the women. Silvia Dalla Benetta grows ever more assured as Zelmira, while Marina Comparato as her confidante, Emma, matches her note for note, notably in their exquisite duet meltingly introduced by harp and cor anglais. In the pit Gianluigi Gelmetti steers a safe course, though sometimes the balance is rocky on the ear.
Find out more about Rossini and his works here