On April 5, 2019, Washington Concert Opera (WCO) at The George Washington University Lisner Auditorium performed Gioachino Rossini’s Zelmira, a bel canto opera that had not been performed in the United States since 1835. WCO, as it name suggests, presents opera that focuses on music which means without sets and props.
Artistic Director/conductor Antony Walker undoubtedly chooses his music carefully since the WCO season is limited. Beyond the concluding entry Zelmira, this 2018-2019 season offered Charles Gounod’s Sapho and the co-presented Frank Martin’s chamber opera Le vin herbĂ© at The Barns at Wolf Trap. By throwing his entire body into his conducting (he jumps, flutters his fingers, and seems to be preparing to fly), Antony Walker demonstrated how fully he enjoyed this little-known Rossini opera that starts without overture and contains a haunting English horn and harp accompaniment to a moving duet between Zelmira and her confidant Emma.
Gathered for this outstanding concert production were: a 40-voice chorus, mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro SantafĂ© as Zelmira, tenor Lawrence Brownlee asIlo, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Emma, tenor Julius Ahn as Antenore, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Polidoro, and bass-baritone Matthew Scollin as Leucippo. Silvia Tro SantafĂ©’s singing was at her best in the duets with Lawrence Brownlee. It was interesting how well matched the voices of Tro SantafĂ© and Brownlee were. Their duets provided fascinating harmonious pleasure. Still, Brownlee is in a bel canto class of his own and his ability to hit and sustain high notes are a tour de force. Rossini scored the role of Emma as a contralto, possibly to give this character additional authority and to distinguish Emma from Zelmira. This reviewer throughout the production remained fascinated with Genaux’s bel canto technique which featured over
exaggerated lip movements. Genaux was also the most expressive actor among the six singers.
A two-act opera, Zelmira has a funky libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola. The all-over-the-place story is based on the French play Zelmire by de Belloy. The opera is sung in Italian but the location is Greece. Wisely, the subtitles were minimal and therefore the story receded into the background, giving more attention to the compelling but sometimes unintentionally comic music—comic usually because of the flourishes required of bel canto. The story concerns assassinations of kings and who will ascend these thrones. Zelmira is the daughter of King Polidoro of Lesbos who is being hunted by his enemies. Zelmira has hidden her father in his own mausoleum and awaits the return of her warrior husband Ilo to protect her father, their infant son, and herself. Even her confidant Emma believes the rumors that Zelmira has killed her father until Zelmira takes Emma to the mausoleum. Like the Rossini operas known best (e.g., The Barber of Seville and Cinderella), Zelmira has a
What’s coming in the 2019-2020 WCO season is Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet based on a French stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by Alexandre Dumas (November 24, 2019) and Paul Meurice and Giuseppe Verdi’s rarely performed Simon Boccanegra (April 5, 2020).
Photos: Don Lassell