Rossini’s Zelmira

friday, April 5, 2019
7:00 pm

Presented at Lisner Auditorium.

Below you will find the Program Notes and Synopsis for Friday’s performance.

Program Notes

By Peter Russell

As we began Washington Concert Opera’s 2018-2019 season on the Greek island of Lesbos with Charles Gounod’s Sapho (1851), we now conclude it there this evening with Gioachino Rossini’s Zelmira. And, just as the Gounod proved to be a “rare bird sighting” for American opera goers, so it is again with Zelmira, which has never before been performed here on the East Coast.

Of Rossini’s prolific total output of 34 operas, 18 were composed between 1815-1822, nine of those for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, one of Europe’s leading musical capitals during the first half of the 19th century. Domenico Barbaja, the San Carlo’s energetic and enterprising impresario, had presciently signed the young Rossini to a ten-year contract that obligated the composer to write at least one new opera per season. The financial terms were generous, the quality of available singers and musicians was first-rate, Neapolitan audiences were appreciative and, given the extremely rushed conditions under which Rossini had been forced to compose earlier in his career (he had on more than one occasion written entire operas in under three weeks), the work schedule was eminently manageable.

The prima donna of the San Carlo was Isabella Colbran, a native of Spain who had won acclaim all over Europe beginning in her early 20s through her vocal prowess and magnetic personality. At the time of Rossini’s arrival in Naples, she was also Barbaja’s mistress, although their romance eventually cooled and she became Rossini’s lover as well as his muse. She created leading roles in several of his greatest successes there, including Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (playing Queen Elizabeth I), Desdemona in Otello, his setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and the title character in La Donna del Lago, based on Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake, among others. From contemporary accounts, we learn (and can glean from Rossini’s vocal writing) that Colbran had extraordinary facility in trills and passage work. It is only in the 20th century that the musical world became fixated on categorizing female classical vocalists as either “soprano” or “mezzo-soprano.” Judging by the range of roles written for her, Colbran was something of a hybrid: roles she created are sometimes performed today by artists who clearly identify as either soprano or mezzo-soprano. What is also certain is that, by the time of Zelmira’s premiere during carnival season in late winter 1822, Colbran’s voice was beginning to show signs of premature decline: her artistry was still very much intact, but limitations in stamina and range drew criticisms from even her most devoted Neapolitan admirers.

Reaction to the initial run of Zelmira was positive for Rossini’s music, less so for the plot and libretto by Andrea Tottola, deemed too implausible and convoluted even by opera standards of the day. Rossini had been aware while composing that Zelmira would travel less than two months following its premiere from Naples to Vienna, where Barbaja had taken up reins managing the prestigious Kärntnertor Theater, and had scheduled a three-month “Rossini Festival” to inaugurate his tenure. On the way, Rossini and Colbran took a detour to Bologna to marry in the presence of Rossini’s parents. The entire Viennese sojourn resulted in triumph for Rossini, Colbran, and, through reflected glory, Barbaja: the Viennese could not get enough of Rossini or his operas, and Rossini was overwhelmed by a performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and a private meeting with the great composer (who managed to clearly convey to Rossini, despite his own near deafness and the Italian composer’s lack of German, that Rossini should stick to comedy).

A lucrative guest contract at His Majesty’s Theatre in London brought the English premiere of Zelmira in early 1824, with the composer conducting and his wife in the title role. Unimpressed by her past glories, London audiences and critics found Colbran’s singing a huge disappointment. She quietly retired from the stage shortly thereafter at age 42. Rossini, who intensely disliked the English climate, culture and food, couldn’t wait to escape to Paris, where he had visited to a warm reception just prior to crossing the channel, and ended up spending most of his dotage. Colbran, less fond of Paris, began spending more and more time at her late father’s estate near Bologna. Through her earlier association with Barbaja, who had managed casinos along with opera houses, she had developed a gambling addiction, and was constantly in need of money. She began selling off parts of the estate to make ends meet. Colbran and Rossini separated in 1837, although he continued to provide generous financial support. She died in 1845 at age 60. Rossini married the artists’ model Olympe Pélissier the following year.

Zelmira faded from opera houses worldwide in the late 1830s. By then, most of Rossini’s serious operas had fallen out of favor, seen as too static and formulaic compared to works infused with the more extroverted passions of the Romantic era found in new scores by Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and, eventually, Giuseppe Verdi. The libretto and characterizations by Tottola were further hindrances to Zelmira’s popularity. Although there is no overture — in itself unusual — one would prove useful in modern revivals as a means of projecting titles on the proscenium screen to provide a clear summary beforehand of the convoluted backstory that lands us bewilderingly in medias res when the curtain rises right after Azor’s murder (“Previously on episodes of Rossini’s Zelmira”).

Nor do the dramatic situations unfold any more believably as the action progresses, or do its principal characters develop added nuance or depths. Zelmira remains pretty much the damsel in distress, albeit a euphonious one, while Ilo is ever her loving but puzzled, gullible husband, who takes the word of a mustache-twirling villain like Antenore that his wife intended to murder him without evidence of a convincing motive.

There are some operas that, due to these dramatic liabilities, fairly cry out for the “opera in concert” treatment, especially when they are counterbalanced by exceptional scores. Such is the case with Zelmira. This is less an “aria highlights” work than one which makes its points through care lavished on ensembles and recitatives. For an example of the first, listen to the masterfully constructed duet in the first act for Zelmira and Ilo beginning, “A che quei tronchi accenti,” with its deliberately broken phrases depicting Ilo’s heartbreak and confusion. It transitions seamlessly into a beautiful andante section and concludes with a fiery cabaletta. It is also noteworthy that, unlike in other Rossini operas, wherein the recitative sections are often interstitial episodes to join big concerted numbers, here they are almost indistinguishable from the arias and ensembles, presaging the young Verdi’s penchant for creating entire scenes in which the musical and theatrical tension never flags. There are beauties of instrumentation: listen for the solo harp and English horn obbligatos in the duet between Zelmira and Emma, or the harp accompanying Emma’s aria. Nor does Zelmira adhere to expected operatic conventions of the day: the title character sings no aria to introduce herself at her entrance (but concludes the opera in a blaze of glory), while the male chorus has both better music and greater substance than is sometimes the case in Rossini’s operas.

There is another, more practical reason why it has only been during the past several decades that revivals of Zelmira have provided an opportunity for proper reappraisal following so many years of neglect. When the opera received its first major revival in over a century at the Teatro San Carlo in 1965, the astute music critic William Weaver noted that it was nearly impossible to gauge the quality of Rossini’s score given how ill-equipped the principal singers were at executing his extreme technical demands and specific stylistic requirements. In the intervening years, singers worldwide, thanks to efforts of musicologists, conductors, coaches, and vocal pedagogues, have gradually cracked the code together of how to conquer Rossini’s unique vocal challenges. The result has been a whole new generation of outstanding bel canto stylists, especially tenors. Not only did the roster of singers at the Teatro San Carlo at the time of Zelmira’s premiere boast a female star of Isabella Colbran’s magnitude – it also featured two of the world’s greatest virtuoso tenors, Giovanni David, who created the role of Ilo, and Andrea Nozzari, the first Antenore. Both these artists figured prominently in many of the operas Rossini composed for Naples, and they succeeded there in large part because Rossini recognized their talents and knew how to showcase them. He was keenly aware that his success was closely tied to theirs. Zelmira lay dormant for nearly two centuries awaiting the kiss of not merely one virtuoso singer, but an entire cast of them. For her to awaken fully, the opera world needed first to collectively go back to basics and relearn the intricate aerodynamics of the human singing voice. It is through such efforts that Washingtonians, along with modern audiences dating back to 1988 in Venice, Rome, Edinburgh, Pesaro, and other cities — not to mention admirers of at least two major recent commercial recordings — can discover Zelmira tonight.

Peter Russell is the General Director of Vocal Arts DC and co-founder,
with Stephen Crout, of Washington Concert Opera.


Before the opera begins

Azor, King of Mytilene, attempts to overthrow old King Polidoro of Lesbos. In an effort to save her father, Polidoro’s daughter Zelmira hides him in the royal mausoleum. She hopes her husband Prince Ilo of Troy will return to Lesbos shortly to restore Polidoro to his throne. When she lies to Azor telling him her father is hiding in the Temple of Ceres, Azor burns down the temple and assumes he has killed the king. But when the opera opens, it is Azor who has just been discovered murdered in his bed.


A chorus of Mytilene soldiers is panicked and incensed by the death of their king Azor. Leucippo expresses amazement at this crime. Antenore arrives and, after initial shock, realizes the political potential in Azor’s death. Leucippo, a follower of Antenore, persuades the soldiers that Antenore is the best person to avenge their king and to become the new King of Lesbos. When the soldiers depart to search for the murderer the two men rejoice, as Antenore soon will be crowned King of Lesbos as well as Mytilene. They realize Antenore’s power is not secure until Zelmira and her infant son are removed from the scene, so they scheme to blame her for the deaths of both Azor and Polidoro.

Zelmira discovers that her confidante, Emma, believes the rumors that she has murdered her father. To persuade her of the truth, Zelmira leads Emma to the mausoleum where King Polidoro sits in solitude.

As a chorus welcomes Zelmira’s husband, Prince Ilo, back from a victorious war in Troy, he eagerly awaits his wife and son. When she arrives, Zelmira is afraid to tell her husband the true situation regarding her father because of the crowd surrounding him. Ilo recognizes that she is disturbed, but she does not explain. Emma reveals that Antenore is blaming Zelmira for Azor’s death, leaving Ilo in confusion and dismay.

The Prince arrives, distraught at the thought of his wife having killed her father. Antenore persuades Ilo that not only was Zelmira Azor’s mistress, but that she now plans to kill her husband. Zelmira begs Emma to tell Ilo that Polidoro lives and that he (Ilo) should flee Lesbos, so that he and her son may not die at Antenore’s hands.

Antenore is crowned King of Lesbos by the high priest amidst an enthusiastic crowd of warriors and young women.

As Ilo searches for his son, he nearly faints from despair. Leucippo takes the opportunity to try to stab him, but Zelmira intervenes, grabbing the knife. Leucippo rouses Ilo and points out that his wife is about to kill him. Ilo offers his breast so she can send him to join her father. He refuses to believe Zelmira’s explanation that it was Leucippo who was about to murder him. Antenore enters with a crowd and accuses Zelmira of Azor’s and Polidoro’s deaths. Seeing Zelmira with the dagger, the crowd calls her a “monster of ungodliness” and she is led off to prison.


Leucippo brings Antenore a letter his men intercepted, in which Zelmira writes to Ilo proclaiming her innocence and hinting that Polidoro is still alive. They agree to free Zelmira, certain that she will lead them to her father. Antenore says he would rather die than give up the throne.

Emma entrusts Zelmira and Ilo’s son to her women to hide in the royal mausoleum.

Ilo sings of his lingering love for his supposedly murderous wife when Polidoro emerges from the tomb. Polidoro describes Zelmira’s plan to save his life, and Ilo ecstatically realizes that his wife is innocent.

Antenore and Leucippo overhear Emma explaining to Zelmira that Ilo has found her father and knows she is innocent. Zelmira, erroneously believing that Ilo has taken Polidoro to safety on his ships, reveals to Antenore that her father had been hidden in the mausoleum.

Polidoro is led in by guards, and Zelmira recognizes that she has unwittingly betrayed her father to their enemies. Leucippo threatens to kill Polidoro first while Zelmira watches, so she will suffer more.

The Myteline soldiers enter bearing the ashes of Azor and demanding the punishment of his killer. Antenore points to Zelmira as the murderer. Emma and the women plead for mercy, but the soldiers lead Zelmira and Polidoro away to prison, followed shortly by Antenore and Leucippo, who intend to kill them.

Emma and the women find Ilo and explain that his wife and her father are in imminent danger; he and his men rush to the rescue.

Zelmira and Polidoro await their fate. Antenore and Leucippo enter, preparing to end the lives of their rivals for power, when a clash of arms and shouts are heard outside the prison. Realizing that Ilo is approaching, Antenore tries to kill Polidoro, but Zelmira draws a dagger and stands in front of her father to protect him. Ilo breaks in, accompanied by Trojan soldiers, citizens of Lesbos, Emma and her women, plus the young prince. The two villains are placed in chains, and Zelmira and Ilo are reunited. The crowd rejoices at the happy ending of all of Zelmira’s trials.