Brownlee’s sterling artistry strikes Rossini sparks in WCO’s “Zelmira”

Sat Apr 06, 2019 at 2:24 pm

Silvia Tro Santafé and Lawrence Brownlee in Rossini’s “Zelmira,” presented by Washington Concert Opera Friday night at Lisner Auditorium. Photo: Don Lassell

Washington Concert Opera completed a fine season Friday night, with the latest in a series of opera-lovers’ collectors’ items, coming after Gounod’s Sapho last fall.

Music director Antony Walker led a rare performance of Rossini’s Zelmira at Lisner Auditorium. Premiered in 1822, this would be Rossini’s last opera for Naples. After Semiramide in Venice a year later, he would leave for France, writing only French operas for a few more years before abruptly retiring from the stage at 37 and the height of his fame.

The libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola is the main reason for the work’s obscurity, with its convoluted story about Trojan rule on the island of Lesbos. The people of Mytilene have risen against Polidoro, king of Lesbos. They believe they have killed Polidoro by burning down the Temple of Ceres with him in it, but in truth Polidoro’s daughter, Zelmira, has hidden her father in the royal mausoleum. For fear of endangering his life, Zelmira dares not reveal this ruse to her husband, Ilo, when he returns from a military campaign. Polidoro’s enemies convince Ilo that Zelmira has killed Polidoro, a lie he believes until the opera’s happy resolution.

Lawrence Brownlee strode onto the stage brimming with confidence for Ilo’s entrance aria, “Terra amica.” The American tenor delivered this extraordinary firebolt piece, which he revived in his Vocal Arts DC recital in 2016, with show-stopping authority. High notes rang with authority, including an endlessly sustained final note, and the complex runs and arpeggios crackled with verve in the concluding cabaletta. Although Brownlee was in excellent voice throughout, in both ensembles and arias, this piece was a tour de force.

No one else on the platform seemed quite in the same league. Mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé displayed considerable power in the title role, including top notes of leathery toughness, but individual notes in melismatic sections sometimes clumped together stickily. Her voice, less distinctive on its own, melded beautifully with other singers, as in the gorgeous duet with Ilo in Act I. Walker chose to perform the Paris version of the score, including the Act II cavatina Rossini composed there for Giuditta Pasta, which proved one of the highlights of Tro Santafé’s performance.

A highlight of the score is certainly Zelmira’s duet with Emma, her confidant, sung here by mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. Accompanied only by harpist Eric Sabatino and Joseph DeLuccio on English horn, Genaux’s softer timbre combined with Tro Santafé exquisitely in this mournful chamber music-like duet filled with pathos. In other ensembles she tended to be covered, although the clarity of her fioriture remains unparalleled.

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi made an empathetic Polidoro, with a present top range outshining some limitations in the bottom notes. As the villain Antenore, who plots to have himself crowned king of Lesbos, tenor Julius Ahn made a mixed company debut. He had the range for this evil tenor role, with some strain at the high end but the placement was unpleasantly nasal and the Italian pronunciation subpar. As Leucippo, Antenore’s wicked henchman, bass-baritone Matthew Scollin combined a snarling tone with scenery-chewing scowls.

While the plot may be ridiculous, Rossini’s music is dramatically gripping and inventive in terms of melody, harmony, and orchestration. The composer eschews an overture, opening the action in media res, with the chorus singing loudly about the death of a character before the opera even begins. The WCO Chorus sounded lighter in heft this time around, still ably prepared by assistant conductor David Hanlon.

Walker conducted with his accustomed full-body enthusiasm, often marking loud climax points with a leap from the podium. He assisted his dramatic gestures with prominent sighs, breaths, and other sounds, which proved fitfully distracting. The valiant orchestra sounded fairly strong throughout, given that Rossini’s score is often more complicated than the simple chords and big crescendos associated with his earlier works. A couple early entrances, first from the woodwinds and then more obtrusively from the percussion, marred the first act.

Next season Washington Concert Opera will perform Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (November 24) and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (April 5).; 202-364-5826

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