Palazzi, Mirco


ZelmiraGioachino Rossini - Zelmira

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2009 | Roberto Abbado, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Alex Esposito, Kate Aldrich, Juan Diego Flórez, Gregory Kunde, Marianna Pizzolato, Mirco Palazzi, Francisco Brito, Sávio Sperandio | Decca

Rossini’s final opera written for Naples, Zelmira, is rather less well-known now than the greater works written for Paris that immediately follow it - Moïse et Pharaon, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell. It’s an opera that places exceptional demands on the singers, but perhaps no more so than those later works, so that only accounts for part of the reason why it so rarely performed. Produced for the Rossini Opera Festival in 2009, the problems with staging Zelmira would seem to derive from the nature of the work itself as an opera seria. It’s a long work that follows the format of set scenes and emotions that presents challenges that even the musical invention of Rossini or strong singing performances alone can’t overcome. It needs to work dramatically, and unfortunately, Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s messy and confused production for Pesaro doesn’t do much to help it.

Although there are claims by Roberto Abbado and the Pesaro Festival organisers that Rossini’s music here extends the constraints of opera seria, the structure remains largely intact, and Rossini in reality does little more than play around to bring the form of the da capo aria into what we associate today with bel canto ornamentation. There are some terrific arias and arrangements here in Zelmira, but there is nothing that Rossini hasn’t already taken much further and with better dramatic integrity in earlier work for Naples like La Donna del Lago. The music for Zelmira for the most part - in between the showpiece arias - remains fairly rigid and lacking in variation, building from a canter to a gallop in that famous Rossinian style to create a rising emotional intensity, but its peaks are ill-served and ill-matched to an unexciting plot.

The main problem lies with the fact that the overall structure of the piece is weighed down by the unwieldy conventions of the opera seria form. The plot of Zelmira is mechanical and improbable, relying on standard situations, coincidences and actions that arise from rather one-dimensional character development. In the tradition of Baroque opera, the main dramatic drivers of the action have already taken place even before the opera even starts. Set on the isle of Lesbos, a struggle for power has erupted while Ilo, the husband of Zelmira, has gone to defend the homeland. Azor, the Lord of Mytilene, has launched an attack, burning down the temple of Ceres, where Azor has been led to believe - on the word of Zelmira - that her father, King Polidoro is hiding. Zelmira however has secured her father secretly in the royal mausoleum. Antenore takes advantage of the situation, killing Azor, laying claim to the throne himself and he accuses Zelmira of being complicit in the death of Azor and her father, the king, as well.

Now there are plenty of opportunities for Zelmira to prove her innocence during Act 1 of the actual opera, but Rossini forgoes any realistic dramatic progression to the conventions of opera seria where everyone laments the current state of affairs in arias adorned with repetition and ornamentation. The troops lament the death of Azor, Polidoro is distraught and broken alone in his hiding place, while Zelmira’s protests of innocence fall on deaf ears. Amazingly, there seem to be no witnesses among the public or the troops to back up her claims, and even faced with imprisonment, Zelmira doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to reveal that the king is not actually dead. She is at least able to eventually convince her confidante Emma to take her young son into hiding.

Even when her husband Ilo returns to his homeland (delivering one of Rossini’s great arias - ‘Terra Amica‘), Zelmira’s actions only seem to dig her in deeper and it’s Antenore and his lieutenant Leucippo’s account that Ilo is told. In one of those improbable situations that only occur in opera then, Zelmira - attempting to rescue Ilo from assassination by Leucippo, ends up with the dagger in her own hand and has another crime to answer for. Inevitably, it’s going to take a few more rounds of arias to assimilate the enormity of this new heinous act and the kind of conflicted emotions it engenders in each of characters, before Zelmira eventually produces Polidoro and her son, and the villains are found out.

Ostensibly then Zelmira is very much in the tradition of the opera seria, dealing with rulers, power, corruption and lies, but in reality, as the title of the opera derived from the name of the heroine suggests, it’s more about the heroine, Zelmira. Faced with injustice, false accusations, her innocence and integrity called unjustly into question, Zelmira is very much the early prototype for the bel canto heroines of Donizetti and Bellini. As such, and particularly in how it holds closely to the opera seria style and stretching as it does to three and a quarter hours in length, Zelmira can be a bit of a stretch for anyone interested in strong character development and dramatic credibility, but it does have other compensating factors in the inventiveness of Rossini’s arrangements, the musical colours that he brings to the genre and the opportunities that this provides for the singers to imprint personality and character onto the work through their singing delivery.

If Kate Aldrich isn’t quite able to make her Zelmira work, it’s through no fault of her singing which has real power and expressiveness, but rather more of a question of this being a role that requires a singer of greater stature and personality to bring it to life and make her predicament credible and sympathetic. The same challenge faces all the singers here, but in their case, they really need better stage direction and a better production design than the one provided here. Juan Diego Flórez has plenty of personality and the range to meet the demands of this kind of Rossinian role - strong, resonant, wonderfully musical and expressive, but his high timbre is never the most pleasant and it’s not helped by the acoustics of the stage (set up in Pesaro’s Adriatic basketball arena) and sounds quite piercing at the high notes in a way that is hard on the ears. The sound suits the bass and bass-baritone voices much better, giving a lovely resonance to Alex Esposito’s grave Polidoro and Mirco Palazzi’s Leucippo, whose recitative even sounds beautifully rounded and musical. Gregory Kunde however also comes across well as Antenore, and Marianna Pizzolato almost steals the show with her luxurious mezzo-soprano in the contralto role of Emma.

With a cast this good, a stronger production might have made all the difference, but Giorgio Barberio Corsetti’s concept doesn’t seem to suit the character of the work. Instead of Zelmira’s predicament, the focus is very much upon the nature of war and power, the director setting the production in near darkness, using overhead mirrors to reflect the darker and hidden side of all these power struggles and lies that we don’t normally see, reflecting wounded, tortured and dead troops placed beneath the grilled stage. Apart from not really helping the opera where it needs the support, it actually works against it, making it seem very messy, unfocussed and often downright ugly.

It may have looked better in the theatre, but the darkness of the stage, the figures highlighted in pale yellow light, with confusing reflections in the background mirrors, doesn’t come across well on the screen, even in High Definition. There appears to be some post-production adjustments to balance the contrasts, and even shadowing applied to block out the frequently visible conductor Roberto Abbado at the front of the stage, but this only proves to be even more distracting and messy. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks on the Blu-ray disc however are mostly fine, even if there is some harshness in the reverb of the acoustics. The Decca BD also includes a 25-minute Making Of, which contains interesting thoughts and information on the work itself and the production from the cast and the production team.

DemetrioGioachino Rossini - Demetrio e Polibio

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Corrado Rovaris, Davide Livermore, María José Moreno, Victoria Zaytseva, Yijie Shi, Mirco Palazzi | Arthaus Musik

There’s a wonderful double-take moment at the start of this 2010 Rossini Opera Festival production of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio, which turns out to be a thoughtful way to present the work and at the same time manages to strike the perfect balance between the traditional performance and more modern conceptual. The stage curtain draws back at the opening to reveal a final curtain call of a performer for an unseen audience out the back of the stage. His self-congratulations out of the way, the stage hands having moved the sets to the wings, the scene is set for some ancient ‘ghosts of opera past’ to arise out of the packing cases to re-enact a historic performance of the drama of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio.

It’s a clever and effective compromise between traditional and conceptual that works well for this one particular Rossini opera that needs a thoughtful and considered approach. Demetrio e Polibio, a ‘dramma serio‘ in two acts, is Rossini’s first opera, which he started to compose when he was only 14 years old. It was composed piecemeal in individual sections as a commission for the Mombelli family’s quartet of singers - some parts perhaps written by the Mombelli father - customised to meet the requirements of the particular characteristics of the singers, but also written to adhere to standard classical opera drama arrangements of arias and duets, with familiar plot devices that involve mistaken and hidden identities. It’s also one of those Metastasian-style dramas where a significant part of the dramatic action has already to a large extent taken place before the opera starts, leaving the characters in a position to bemoan their fate as they strive to find a resolution over the two acts of the opera.

Before the opera even starts, you need to know that Demetrius, the King of Syria, has entrusted his son to a loyal friend Minteus while he is involved in a terrible struggle over royal succession. Minteus however dies before he can reveal the nature of his royal identity to the boy, Siveno, who is taken in by Polibius, the King of Parthia, as his adopted son. As the opera starts some years later, Polibio plans to marry Siveno to his own daughter Lisinga, but Demetrio, having resolved matters in Syria, has come looking for his son, in disguise (of course) as Eumeno, a Syrian ambassador. Polibius - believing that Siveno is the son of Minteaus - doesn’t accept Eumeno’s claims on the boy, forcing Demetrio to make plans to abduct his own son. By mistake, it’s Lisinga who is abducted, which leads to a stand-off confrontation between Demetrio and Polibio over their respective offspring.

The nature of this ‘dramma serio‘ dictates that Rossini’s first opera leans more towards the model of composition of the 18th century rather than towards the new Italian opera model of the 19th century that Rossini would play such an important part in establishing. The influence of Mozart is also evident in the musical approach in an early La Finta Giardiniera or Apollo et Hyacinthus style, if somewhat less adventurous in arrangements and technique, but it’s surprising just how much of the Rossini sound is evident even at this early stage. The first act is made-up almost entirely of duets, with only the bare minimum of recitative, allowing the bonds to be established between the characters much more effectively than solipsistic arias of emotional turmoil, and it builds up wonderfully towards the quartets that mark the confrontation of Demetrio and Polibio (Siveno and Lisinga are not passive figures in the drama by any means) and the brief ensemble finale. The arrangement may have been tailor-made for the Mombelli family, but it also works to the advantage of the musical drama.

Demetrio e Polibio would still however be little more than an early Rossini curiosity, a pleasant but dull and conventional drama, were it not for the wonderful effort put into every aspect of the work for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the first modern production of the work in 150 years. As well as evoking the spirit of the Mombelli family through the period costume ghosts that inhabit a modern opera stage and thereby taking the origin of the work into account, director Davide Livermore also uses the haunted stage element to make the opera something wonderful to watch by employing plenty of Illusionist trickery. There’s relevance in this as well as entertainment, acknowledging the “old-style” theatricality of the work, but also using handheld flames to evoke the sparking of love and anger, while the proliferation of doubles, mirror images and disappearing acts all reflect the shifting identities of the characters. It makes a rather academic work seem much more meaningful and consistently entertaining.

The consideration given towards the presentation of this extremely rare work is also reflected in the delightful performance of the musicians, directed by Corrado Rovaris, and the singing performances. Bearing in mind that the difficulty of the roles as written was determined by the capabilities of the original cast, the singing is good across all the roles. Lisinga has the most challenging singing and María José Moreno takes in all the high notes - sometimes a little effortfully - but with great expressiveness. Demetrio has the most active role in the work as the villain of the piece (or perceived villain) and Yijie Shi demonstrates a fine Rossinian Italian tenor style that suits the role perfectly. The breeches role of Siveno doesn’t have quite so many demands placed on it in terms of singing but mezzo-soprano Victoria Zaytseva is absolutely fine for the part, while Mirco Palazzi’s reliable bass fulfils the requirements for Polibio with characteristic Rossinian verve. In terms of duets and ensemble work, the combination of their voices works beautifully in these lovely little arrangements.

On Blu-ray, this is another lovely package of a Rossini Opera Festival production. The High Definition transfer looks superb, and the stage design and direction is so strong that Tiziano Mancini doesn’t have to resort to video trickery to make it any more interesting. The usual high quality audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 give a detailed account of the fine music and the singing performance, making this curiosity all the more fascinating to listen to. The subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The English subtitles have some curiosities of translation - “No more husband have I, a villain has subtracted him from me” is one example, but they are mostly fine if a little stiff and literal. As well as some words on the production and a full synopsis in the accompanying booklet, there is a fine 14-minute ‘Making Of’ with interviews and behind the scenes footage on the disc itself.

ChamounixGaetano Donizetti - Linda di Chamounix

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2012 | Marco Armiliato, Emilio Sagi, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, Bruno de Simone, Simón Orfila, Pietro Spagnoli, Silvia Tro Santafé, Jordi Casanova, María José Suárez, Mariola Cantarero, Ismael Jordi, Paolo Bordogna, Mirco Palazzi, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Fabio Capitanucci | 7 and 8 January 2012

As an example of the semiseria opera tradition, where tragedy ensues but everything nonetheless works through to a happy end, the plot of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix shares a familiar plot line that is more than a little overwrought and even in parts ridiculous. Like Halévy’s semiseria Clari, recently rediscovered and revived (not entirely convincingly) by Cecilia Bartoli, it involves a young woman from the country, an Alpine virgin, who runs away to Paris on the promise of marriage to a rich man and in the process not only risks destroying the good name of her family but also losing her virtue and losing her mind when her fiancée seems to be unable to or is prevented from making an honest woman out of her.

In Haléy’s opera - written for the soprano Maria Malibran - this is an occasion then for long-winded opera-seria like virtuoso bel canto singing with extravagant coloratura to suggest the depths of despair, torment and eventual breakdown its heroine endures, as well as emphasising the importance of virtue in a manner that seems terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards and scarcely worthy of revival. Also rarely performed nowadays, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix is similarly encumbered by stern moralising, but the challenges of producing it lie more in the difficulty of finding bel canto singers capable of meeting its comparatively modest, but no less demanding singing roles. This new production from Emilio Sagi for the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona with Diana Damrau and Juan Diego Flórez in the main roles of Linda and Carlo, demonstrated the importance of the casting for this opera, one that is vital for it to work even half way convincingly.

Making this overall plot work is quite a challenge, but set-up in Act 1 at least is conventional enough. Linda is a pure and beautiful young country girl, the daughter of tenant farmers in the Alpine Savoy region of France in 1760. She is being pursued by the landowner, the Marquis de Boisfleury, a notorious libertine and seducer of young girls, who believes he has some claim to her, having extended her family’s lease on their factory. Warned of the intentions of Boisfleury by the Prefect, her father sends her away to Paris, entrusting her to her childhood friend Pierotto, but it means that Linda has to leave behind her true love, Carlo. Carlo, who has been keeping his identity secret, is the nephew of the Marquis de Boisfleury, promises “before God and man” that he will make Linda his wife, but his mother has other ideas and a more suitable match for the young viscount than a poor country girl.

Chamounix

Many of the difficulties with swallowing the dramatic developments occur in Act 2, where Linda, having been reduced to singing in the streets after Pierotto had fallen ill, has now been rescued by Carlo and installed in a luxurious Parisian apartment. By amazing coincidence, over the course it seems of an hour, she is joyously reunited with Pierotto; is then visited by the Marquis who suspects she is living in such surroundings on the expense of a rich admirer and believes it gives him freedom to make another play for her; is visited by Carlo who is concerned about the upcoming marriage that has been arranged for him; is then petitioned by her father who, when he discovers that the viscount’s mistress is none other than his daughter Linda, furiously repudiates her. To top it all, Pierotto returns to tell Linda that he has seen the preparations for Carlo’s marriage to another woman. Having endued all this, Linda, inevitably, and in the great opera tradition, goes mad.

The plot might sound outlandish and governed by extraordinarily unlikely coincidences, but Act 2 nonetheless manages to present the different facets of Linda’s situation with economical precision. Really, you couldn’t make the complications of Linda’s predicament any clearer. What helps matters and makes the contrivances rather more palatable, is of course the wonderful musical arrangements and the singing. Musically, Linda di Chamounix, coming several years after Lucia di Lammermoor and preceding the masterful Don Pasquale, is a rather more sophisticated affair than earlier Donizetti works. Characters are defined and identified by leitmotifs and the composer’s use of duets allows the dramatic flow to be maintained without the excesses of emotion expression in long arias. Even Linda’s ‘mad scene’ is a rather more restrained affair than the one in Lucia di Lammermoor, and so well orchestrated are the events that lead up to it, and so precise in delivery and expression is the scene, that it’s actually even more moving and tragic without all the excess.

While there may be few and shorter showcase arias than is customary, those that we have are demanding nonetheless and, when delivered by a singer of exceptional quality, certainly have their dramatic and emotional impact and linger in the mind, as much through the fine melodies of the mature Donizetti style as through the sentiments expressed in them and what they reveal about the characters. Diana Damrau’s mad scene consequently received long and enthusiastic applause at the Liceu, as did Juan Diego Flórez’s confidently delivered ‘Se tanto in ira agli uomini‘ in Act 2. Their expression of the characters in this difficult Act 2 was such that Act 3’s happy resolution of Linda being cured from the madness that has afflicted her by the refrain of Carlo’s promise, is capable of being musically satisfying as well as dramatically convincing. In the other roles, Simón Orfila had powerful presence and authority as the religious and moral guide, the Prefect, while Pietro Spagnoli was fine as Linda’s father Antonio.

Chamounix

The difference that this makes was evident from a viewing of another performance of the same production the previous evening with an alternate cast. Surprisingly however, the difference wasn’t exclusively down to the vocal characteristics alone. Both Mariola Cantarero and Ismael Jordi sang well - Jordi in particular fully deserving of the applause received for a fine performance that was a worthy alternative to Flórez, if Cantarero didn’t have quite the beauty of tone or range of Damrau, particularly when it came to holding that high note at the end of the mad scene. There was however a marked difference embodied in their characters, Damrau and Flórez a much more convincing couple who were able to breathe life into the characters that was lacking in the performance of the alternate cast. Mirco Palazzi was a good Prefect here, if not quite as powerful as Simón Orfilia, but I preferred Ketevan Kemoklidze’s Pierotto of the alternate cast over Silvia Tro Santafé, who has a pretty voice but irritatingly sang every note with vibrato. Fabio Capitanucci also made a stronger impression as Antonio, particularly in his duets with Linda and with the Prefect. Paolo Bordogna played the role of the Marquis de Boisfleury with a little more of a comic touch that seems right for the character, but Bruno de Simone’s Boisfleury fitted in better with the more sensitive touch of the Damrau/Florez pairing.

Emilio Sagi’s staging was perfectly in service of the opera without being overly conceptual or too literal. The nature of the Alpine Savoy region was evoked in clean, pure, classical lines, the inhabitants all dressed in white and far more fashionably and expensively than one would expect tenant farmers of a provincial region - but the outer garments were perhaps more of a representation of the inner nature of the characters. The same sense of classical design of Act 2 likewise reflected Linda’s inner purity, even when to outside eyes she appears to be an immoral kept woman in an expensive Parisian apartment. Marco Armiliato directed the orchestra of the Liceu delicately through Donizetti’s score, like the singers and in line with the restrained musical arrangements, maintaining a fine balance that held back any heavy-handed over-emphasis that might tip the work over into sentimental melodrama.

MariaStuardaGaetano Donizetti – Maria Stuarda

Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 2010 | Fabrizio Maria Carminati, Denis Krief, Fiorenza Cedolins, Sonia Ganassi, José Bros, Mirco Palazzi | Unitel Classica - C-Major

One might expect a certain amount of historical detail and political intrigue in an opera about the English crown during the turbulent Tudor era but, based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, like many of his bel canto historical works, keeps the plot and the psychology relatively simple, relating to it more on a romantic than a political level. Here, the political element is practically non-existent, the rivalry that lies between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth being for the affections of the Earl of Leicester, and the dominant tone – powerfully stated – is one of the deepest jealousy.

“Is she pretty?”, Elisabeth can’t help herself asking Leicester who has just delivered a message from Mary and has shown indifference to the news that she is considering a marriage proposal from France, and you can imagine her reaction when Leicester has the indelicacy of detailing Mary’s virtues in loving tones while, strangely in this production, his hands are wandering all over her. The latter point highlights the problem that Denis Krief has with staging the opera. There is really no action, the characters just stand around and sing, and with no great depth to the love-triangle rivalry, the stage director is left to just emphasise, and in some cases inappropriately overstate, those surface emotions that are brought out in the libretto.

And to a large extent, the opera works on that surface level, but it’s mostly through its expression in Donizetti’s sizzling score and the delivery of those bitter cat-fighting moments in the extraordinary challenging arias, than through anything that the staging comes up with. There may not be much to get to grips with in the plot, the acting is stiff and weak (mainly on account of the characters having nothing to do), but if you want to see a mezzo and a soprano tear strips off each other vocally, and coming close to physical violence (there are looks that could kill here), then Sonia Ganassi as Elizabeth and Fiorenza Cedolins as Mary, deliver that in the most powerful manner. Inevitably, the soprano is going to win in the singing stakes, Cedolins having plenty of extravagant arias with all the coloratura, and she delivers them with remarkable control and force, but Ganassi’s Elizabeth has the more juicy lines in the libretto and devastating put-downs. Coming between these two powerful women, the thin tenor voice of José Bros can’t help but seem a bit lost, hitting the notes well enough, but with a tone that isn’t the most pleasant to the ear.

If a stage director is wise then, he will also just keep out of the way and let the two women get on with it, and to a large extent that’s what Krief does. There is no period setting, the costumes are generic traditional rather than modern, there are practically no props whatsoever, the stage converted into a tilted forward labyrinth (reminiscent of the Berlin Holocaust memorial or, less kindly, like a Pac-Man arena when it is populated by moving characters) that does nevertheless give emphasis to the romantic intrigue through its lighting and shadows. It’s not particularly imaginative or dynamic, but it looks fine and works through its very simplicity. There’s not much drama then, no real staging to speak of, not much in the way of acting or movement – it might as well be a concert performance – but the opera works through its musical vibrancy and some terrific arias alone.

On Blu-ray, the stage setting and the lighting come across exceptionally well, and the audio tracks are just as impressive, voices ringing clear, the orchestration beautifully defined, the strings in particular being dominant, with deep rounded bass in the low-frequency range. The audience however sounds strangely muted in the surround mix. There is a little bit of ambient noise or low microphone feedback on a few moments, but nothing that affects the overall impact. There are no extra features on the disc, just some brief notes on the opera and its staging, with a similarly short synopsis.