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Something Different

Rossini's opera 'Ermione',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


If Isabella Colbran's voice had not been showing signs of deterioration, then Rossini's opera Ermione might have been very different. Ermione was the sixth of nine serious operas that Rossini wrote for Naples to showcase the talents of Colbran who was the mistress of the impresario Domenico Barbaia (though at some point she transferred her affections from Barbaia to Rossini).

Colbran was described as a dramatic coloratura soprano though she was probably a mezzo-soprano with a high extension, her range extended from the G below middle C to the E above high C. The effect of the change or decline in Colbran's voice was that Rossini wrote parts for her which were plainer, less elaborate, so that they could showcase her considerable dramatic talents. In Ermione she played the title role and given a plot where the heroine becomes deranged at the end, Rossini might have been expected to write a classic mad scene for Colbran. Instead he crafted a final scene where the careful musical structures of the day disintegrate mirroring the disintegration in the heroine's mind and in the social structures of the play.

The result is much admired nowadays and regarded as being highly dramatic and advanced; in fact commentators sometimes make disparaging comments about Act I because it does not mirror the adventurousness of Act II. The opera seems to have puzzled the original audience. Not only was it not a success but the press seem to have decided to ignore it rather than force Rossini to suffer the humiliation of a failure in print. It was only in the later twentieth century that the opera was re-discovered, and it received its first modern staging at the Pesaro Festival in 1987. Glyndebourne did a much admired staging in 1995.

A curtain call from Rossini's 'Ermione'. From left to right: Paul Nilon, Carmen Giannattasio and David Parry. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan
A curtain call from Rossini's 'Ermione'. From left to right: Paul Nilon, Carmen Giannattasio and David Parry. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan

The opera was written for the regular team of singers at the Naples theatre, so that the first night cast were all experienced in the ways of Rossini's operas. But this means that, like Rossini's other operas for Naples, Ermione is a bit of a challenge to cast. Not only does it require a singer for the title role who is a soprano with a good lower register (or a high mezzo-soprano) but it requires four tenors, three of whom are in major roles (Pirro, Oreste, Pilade). Oreste was sung by Giovanni David who was known for his vocal range of almost three octaves and his ability to sing extremely florid music. David's style of singing is one that has disappeared nowadays, whereby the standard lower and middle of a tenor voice is grafted on to a technique that uses a great deal of falsetto. Modern tenors have found ways to sing his music in striking fashion, but none employs the use of falsetto the way David probably did.

For their concert performance at London's Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 28 March 2009, Opera Rara and the London Philharmonic Orchestra had assembled a strong cast. In fact the concert performance took place in association with a recording. Carmen Giannattasio sang the title role, with Patricia Bardon as Andromaca, Paul Nilon as Pirro, Colin Lee as Oreste, Bülent Bezdüz as Pilade, Graeme Broadbent as Fenicio, Rebecca Bottone as Cleone, Victoria Simmonds as Cefisa and Loïc Félix as Attalo, with the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Parry.

The plot concerns the Greeks and Trojans after the end of the Trojan War. Pirro (Pyrrhus, son of Achilles), ruler of Epirus, has captured Trojans including Andromaca (Andromache) and her son Astianatte (Astyanax). Pirro has been betrothed to Ermione (Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen) but is now in love with Andromaca. Oreste and Pilade (Orestes and Pylades) arrive as messengers from the Greek Kings demanding that Astianatte be put to death as he is the sole remaining male member of the ruling house of Troy.

Oreste is in love with Ermione, but she had rejected him in favour of Pirro. Pirro at first submits to being sensible and agrees to kill Astianatte and marry Ermione. But Andromaca realises that she has a chance to save her son and agrees to marry Pirro. This marriage changes Ermione from being angry to deranged and she asked Oreste to kill Pirro. The resulting death leads to a riot (off stage). Oreste and Pilade rush off to their ships, leaving Ermione collapsed with grief and remorse.

Ermione is never a completely likeable character, she is angry and suffering from the first. Her opening moments are sharp comments about Pirro's faithlessness. Carmen Giannattasio brought out this aspect of the character without ever making her vicious. Her Ermione was warm and passionate. She has quite a rich, vibrant voice but also a deft way with coloratura.

Patricia Bardon and Colin Lee. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan
Patricia Bardon and Colin Lee. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan

As the faithless Pirro, Paul Nilon adeptly conveyed the ruler used to getting his own way, now puzzlingly trapped in the trammels of love. Nilon's attractively grainy voice is not one that would seem to lend itself to elaborate coloratura. But Nilon is certainly adept at this. Though the part was written for the most baritonal of Naples' leading tenors, the role has a significant amount of decorative passages. Nilon impressed with the authority and fluency he brought to the role, though he never made you love Pirro.

As his beloved, Patricia Bardon brought passion and nobility to the role of Andromaca. Her passion is reserved for her late husband and her son, and Bardon impressed with the way she made the character sympathetic.

As Oreste, Colin Lee had to spend most of the time with his voice in the stratosphere, something he did brilliantly. His voice does not quite have the easy grace of Juan-Diego Florez. But he brings a vibrancy and apparent ease to everything he does. It is Oreste for whom we feel sorry. In love with a woman who has no love left; puzzled and hurt when she rails at him for doing the one thing she asked of him (killing Pirro).

Bülent Bezdüz proved excellent support as Oreste's sidekick Pilade. As with his other operas of this period, Rossini wrote mainly in ensembles so that there are few strict arias. This means that a character like Pilade has plenty to sing without every getting a proper solo moment. Bezdüz impressed and I look forward to hearing more of him. He is currently a member of an opera company in his native Turkey, but guests in Europe in roles like Rodolfo and the Duke of Mantua.

Paul Nilon, Carmen Giannattasio and David Parry. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan
Paul Nilon, Carmen Giannattasio and David Parry. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan

The other four characters were there to provide support and this they did. Rebecca Bottone as Cleone (Ermione's confidante) was the only high lyric soprano and sang with clarity and beauty. Victoria Simmonds as Cerfisa, Andromaca's confidante, was heavily pregnant but this did not show in her voice. Graeme Broadbent and Loïc Félix were the male confidants and provided strong support.

Up to the opening scene of Act II, Ermione behaves like an ordinary Rossini opera. Then Pirro and Andromaca go off to be married and we never see them again; neither gets a final scene and Pirro's dramatic death is simply reported by Oreste. From here on, nothing is quite as we might have expected. Both Carmen Giannattasio and Colin Lee relished the unusual dramatic opportunities that Rossini gave them, giving the flexible dramatic structure a strong urgency. But it was to Giannattasio that the laurels must go as she drew a powerful portrait of a woman at the brink. The music lacks the showiness of some of Rossini's writing, instead he gives us a stripped down fluency.

From the very opening, with the off stage chorus in the overture, Rossini signalled that he planned something different. David Parry showed that he loves and understands the work. He shaped it well keeping the drama moving without ever feeling rushed, and gave the singers space without ever being too indulgent. The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and London Philharmonic Orchestra provided fine accompaniment, both groups showing themselves to be flexible and responsive. There were moments when the orchestra could have been a little quieter, but this is a perennial problem with concert performances and the fault was simply one of enthusiasm.

Paul Nilon, Carmen Giannattasio and David Parry. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan
Paul Nilon, Carmen Giannattasio and David Parry. Photo © 2009 Russell Duncan

Parry and his forces gave us a strong performance of a remarkable and neglected work. I look forward to the recording immensely.

Copyright © 30 March 2009 Robert Hugill,
London UK


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