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'Zelmira': Revealing The Serious Side Of Rossini

All sorts of successful creative artists have been subjected to a phenomenon that's been called "pigeonholing." Opera composers — including Gioachino Rossini, one of the very finest — are no exception.

In the creative world, pigeonholing happens when an artist becomes predominantly associated with a single, narrow genre, or style. It can happen to painters who are stereotyped as cubists, or impressionists, though they've actually produced works of genius that can't be put in either of those categories. Another example might be authors who become defined by their thrillers, or science fiction novels, but whose books also go far beyond those boundaries.

Often, these categorizations — justified or not — are the byproduct of enormous success, and that's what may have happened to Rossini. His comedies are some of the finest ever composed. They include gems such as La Cenerentola (Cinderella) and The Italian Girl in Algiers, which have been packing opera houses for nearly two centuries. And that's not to mention Rossini's mega-hit The Barber of Seville, which some have described as the most nearly perfect comic opera ever written. Ultimately, those comedies proved so successful that they've threatened to completely overshadow some of Rossini's finest artistic accomplishments.

Getting Serious

In 1815, Rossini began a period of about seven years in Naples, and many of the composer's greatest admirers think that his finest achievement of the period may have been a series of nine dramas sometimes called his "Neapolitan Operas." They're serious, often tragic works, and Rossini used those scores as vehicles to expand opera's traditional boundaries of form and style.

For some listeners at the time, Rossini may have gone too far. By the early 1820s, it seems that Italian audiences had grown cool to Rossini's increasingly adventurous music. Before long, he had moved to Paris, where he eventually retired from the opera house altogether at age 37. He lived another forty years without ever writing another opera.

Rossini's Zelmira appeared in 1822. It was the last of his Neapolitan operas, and perhaps the most pioneering, as well. The score dispenses with one of Rossini's signature elements, the brilliant orchestral overture. Instead, it plunges directly into a dark drama in which arias, ensembles and recitatives blend in an almost continuous musical flow, anticipating the more through-composed, Romantic style that soon came to dominate European opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a performance of Zelmira that comes straight from the source: the annual Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's birthplace, the Italian city of Pesaro. Soprano Kate Aldrich sings the title role, alongside Juan Diego Florez, arguably today's finest Rossini tenor, in a production led by conductor Roberto Abbado.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.