Those attending the premiere of Ermione on 27 March 1819, at Teatro San Carlo, Naples, seem not to have enjoyed Rossini's latest work. Withdrawn after only seven performances (of which the last two consisted of Act I only), this opera was reported as a memorable fiasco. And yet, a few revivals during recent years (the last one being a successful joint production between the New York City Opera and Dallas Opera in 2004) have demonstrated that this opera has a lot to offer to a contemporary audience.
The latest concert performance at Royal Festival Hall, supported by Opera Rara and a highly proficient cast, represents another important step for the rediscovery of this enjoyable work.
Based on Racine's tragedy Andromaque, Ermione is about the sorrows shaking Trojan and Greek households after the end of the Trojan War. The story revolves around the figure of Ermione, and is driven by the woman's passions and her thirst for revenge, once she realizes her promised husband Pirro has fallen in love with the Trojan captive Adromaca, Ettore's widow and Astianatte's mother.
The opera starts with a choral overture which functions both as a narrative frame for the story and as a clear statement of musical gravity. From the initial bars, the tenors of the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrated a nuanced and sensitive approach to the score and were able to exploit the extreme passions – reflected in frequent dynamic shifts – of the tragedy. The Choir, lamenting the unfortunate fate of the Trojans after the Greeks' victory, was impressive with regards to clarity of diction and expressivity. Moreover, the Orchestra lead by the solid conducting of David Parry, showed itself to be capable of an impressive range of dynamics, precisely rendered throughout the performance.
Act I suffered from a slightly inconstant rendition in the vocal department. Some numbers were excellently delivered, especially thanks to the powerful interpretation of mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon. Her pitiful Andromaca seized the scene: torn by her loyalty to her dead husband and the imperative to save their son's life, the audience felt sympathetic to her, rather than to the title role. Mournful trombones counterpointed her laments at the moment when she was separated from her son Astianatte, whom she is allowed to see only one hour each day.
On the other hand, the dramatic engagement wasn't equally strong from the comprimario singers. This affected the whole performance as numerous characters perform together during the first act. A certain lack of dramatic motivation was, of course, due also to the very nature of the concert performance. Nonetheless, I found that bass Graeme Broadbent as Fenicio and tenor Loïc Félix as Attalo could have been more vocally resolute. However, several minor characters were excellently delivered, such as Bülent Bezdüz's Pilade and Rebecca Bottone's Cleone.
As for the title role, Ermione appears for the first time in the presence of her friend Cleonte and of Pirro (Paul Nilon), the man who betrayed her for Andromaca. Soprano Carmen Giannattasio made of her character a dangerously emotive woman, who appears from the beginning to be furiously in love and contemptuous of any other character, disregarding of social roles (Pirro is her king) and human empathy (she blames Andromaca, who nevertheless shares an equally ill-fated destiny). Giannattasio's warm and fierce tone was effective in conveying hysterical lines such as 'Odio Pirro, odio Oreste, odio me stessa!' ('I hate Pirro, I hate Oreste, I hate myself!').
The first act proceeds as an accumulation of grievance expressed by the main characters, who all whine for their destiny. In the duet 'Anime sventurate' ('Unhappy souls'), Ermione is joined by Oreste, whose love for her is unreciprocated. Tenor Colin Lee's Oreste is, like Andromaca, a character whose dramatic and vocal possibilities are infinite. And again just like Andromaca, he successfully exploited them. All Lee's arias were a showcase for his virtuoso abilities: Lee performed them faultlessly, demonstrating himself to be a great interpreter even in the most difficult passages, most of which included very high tessitura.
The first act finale is an explosion of Rossinian mastery, in which Choir and soloists all join for a moment of musical excellence supported by greatly tragic action. Yet, it is with Act II that Rossini's drama finds a more effective marriage between action and music.
In fact, in Act II the centrality of Ermione as a fragmented character becomes clearer. The urgency of the orchestral lines forecast the imminent tragedy: not able to forgive Pirro, Ermione will force Oreste to kill him – only to regret it as she sees the dagger dripping with Pirro's blood. Giannattasio's interpretation reached the highest peak in her grand scene: through a series of rubati and extreme dynamics, she was able to convey the character's psychological breakdown. Lee's Oreste was equally intense, expressing with vocal precision incredulity at such emotional turmoil. Such was the dramatic intensity that I forgot Oreste wasn't really holding a dagger in his hand. At that moment, the performance's effectiveness overcame the absence of a theatrical set.
The success of the LPO/Opera Rara concert revival demonstrates that this opera cannot be called a real failure in Rossini's career. Why is Ermione a problematic work then? It could perhaps be that an excess of pathetic stillness in Act I affects the performance as a whole: the many virtuoso numbers and the orchestral complexity cannot compensate for that. And yet, as for this specific performance, one cannot but admit that the Opera Rara/LPO partnership, that began in 2000, seems once again to have reached a high level of artistry.
Photos: Carmen Giannattasio; Patricia Bardon
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