Gioachino Rossini: Ermione (1819)

Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes.

SETTING: Epirus, the royal palace of Pirro, King of Epirus, shortly following the fall of Troy. As you may remember from Die Agyptische Helena, Hermione is the daughter of Helen of Troy and her husband Menelaus. This is sort of her story post-bellum, although she has a formidable (and more cuddly) rival dramatically in Andromaca, the widow of the Trojan prince Hector.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYzRXLKfBAw

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (81 minutes)

0: The overture ** is surprisingly Beethoven-esque and interrupted at strategic points by the off-stage chorus of Trojan prisoners. Musically it is okay, but there isn’t some sort of magnificent tune popping in.

Scene 1: A dungeon in the palace.

9: A very dramatic (if slightly wandering) opening scene culminating rather quickly in a cavatina for Andromaca **. Trojans lamenting, Andromaca comes on and embraces her child son Astianatte, who is held prisoner there. Then she laments the loss of her husband Hector. She is told by Attalo, confidant of Pirro the King of Epirus, that if she were to marry the king her son would be released. Fenicio, the king’s tutor, rebukes Attalo because he is afraid of a new outbreak of war and mother is separated from child again.

Scene 2: Gardens outside the palace.

22: A rather standard but oddly familiar feminine chorus of huntresses * sparkles about and led by Cleone tries to distract Ermione with a hunt. Pirro himself comes on thinking Andromaca awaits him there and tries to run when he sees Ermione.

26: The Ermione-Pirro duet *. At times mildly furious, at other times mildly prayerful. A sweet number, but low temperature and possessing no distinctive tune. The male chorus comes on and announces the arrival of Oreste which terrifies Pirro and amuses Ermione. The chorus ends things with a bit more vigour, leaving Ermione to ponder if Oreste’s arrival will speed up Pirro’s plans to wed Andromaca.

Scene 3: The Throne Room.

42: Oreste’s comes on like Kenneth Branagh on a controlled substance. He is comforted by Pilade, his friend and in another era probably his significant other but here he is apparently distraught by his unrequited love for Ermione (…right…). Although it takes a while to warm up, it gets ** because I love the rare opportunity for a tenor-tenor duet and Oreste’s vocal lines in the cavatina are rather nice. Duty must outweigh personal feelings Pilade pleads.

47, 51: Pirro & Co. arrive to a mild grand march * and Oreste’s makes a horrifying demand. It has been decided by all the kings in Greece that Astianatte must be put to death before he is able to avenge the death of his father Hector. This, logically, almost destroys Andromaca for obvious reasons. Pirro refuses to have the child executed in a dramatic cavatina ** and declares that the boy may one day even share the throne with him.

55: Then something very different, suddenly, everything slows down and to minimal accompaniment  Pirro proposes marriage to Andromaca **, this sparks thoughts from Ermione and the male chorus comes in to finish off the ensemble. Pilade swears to defend Oreste (not a surprise) and it appears that Fenicio has allied himself with Andromaca.

Scene 4: Same as Scene 2.

64: Ermione comes on with her confidante Cleone and declares that her love for Pirro has turned to hate. It is all recitative until Oreste comes on and declares his undying love for Ermione **. This starts off the act one finale very mildly but it is sweet even though she rejects him immediately and the entire bit is very low temperature. There is then an off-stage march and male chorus.

74, 78: Pirro chances his mind rather flippantly and decides to hand Astianatte over to Oreste for execution, also he will now marry Ermione. Andromaca collapses, Ermione is furious at Pirro even though he wants her back, everyone is upset. Pirro goes off Ermione again and Andromaca vows to commit suicide if she is forced to marry Pirro under these circumstances. This is brilliantly understated *** and although it wanes a little in the middle, by the entrance of Astianatte under guard the entire situation overtakes everything and we end up in an early draft of what sounds like the first act finale of Maometto II but not quite as effective **.

ACT 2: The palace’s entrance hall. (49 minutes)

4: Andromaca changes her mind, now she will marry Pirro, but it is mostly a ruse to save her son’s life and she is already plotting out her suicide. After much recitative she enters into a duet with Pirro **.

14, 19, 25, 28: Now, again something different: as soon as Andromaca departs from her encounter with Ermione we are off in a 15 minute long marathon aria ** for our title character. At first it is very low temperature, sweet, delicate, without much muscle to it at all. A low key wedding march (with male chorus) follows in as we recognize that Andromaca is going through this wedding only to save her son, but does Ermione? Oreste arrives and Ermione tells him that if he loves her he will murder Pirro and stop the wedding, providing him with a dagger for said. This greatly upbeats her mood and in the last three minutes she finally gets a climax as the chorus condemns her. Watch out for the four timer points, in particular the last which is by far the best and which spares the number from a sentence to one star-land.

32: Fenicio and Palide get a duettino * in which they too debate stopping the wedding.  It has an okay racing tune, but is also very obviously filler.

39: Finally, the second act finale. Ermione regrets asking Oreste to kill Pirro (this is getting a little frustrating, too many changes of mind in this opera).  Oreste returns with the bloodied dagger but describes how Pirro’s own guards turned on him during the wedding when he declared Astianatte to be his hire and murdered him (nothing is said of Andromaca’s fate during this rather shocking turn of events). Ermione doesn’t believe him, although his presence would indicate that he is telling he truth because if he had assassinated Pirro the guards surely would have arrested or killed him. Oreste obviously has very animal passion for Ermione and this is actually the best part in the opera ***. There is no great melody, but it is bizarrely modern sounding and the dramatic tension is all there, mostly with just the two (soprano and tenor) on stage totally alone until Palide and their sailors come to take Oreste away to their ship (seriously can this get more homoerotic?, it’s a good thing Oreste’s is very obviously into Ermione at this point otherwise I would feel my suspicions proved). Twelve grand minutes that really round out the show.

COMMENTS:

So, what do you get when you have a truly great opera that totally lacks any great or memorable tunes? You have Ermione, and by that measure alone I comprehend why the opera was abandoned for over 150 years. Structurally the opera is a compositional masterpiece, as is its plot taken from Racine’s Andromaque although there are some holes. What happened to Andromaca and Astianatte after the assassination of Pirro? Does Oreste actually relay the truth to Ermione regarding how Pirro died? Why do Andromaque, Pirro, and Ermione change their minds so frequently (and quickly) on very important issues that sometimes involve killing other people? I know this is opera, but really?

Until act 2, one wonders if this is really Ermione’s opera or rather Andromaca’s because the latter is far more interesting. I love the role of Oreste, he basically rescues the finale from turning into a weirdly sedate mad scene for the soprano, gives the opera most of its sex appeal, his motivations are the most concrete of all of the characters, and he has some rather lusty bel canto music to sing. I also love Andromaca, a warm contralto role you can really feel for as she engages in a life and death struggle to save her young son’s life on multiple occasions. I’m not as into Ermione. She is, to quote American political comedian Bill Maher, “a whiny little b***h”, and Rossini doesn’t seem willing to provide her with particularly interesting music. It is Oreste who lifts the opera’s finale and even Ermione’s gran scena, it is Andromaca’s arias that are truly grand and affected with pathos. To have the title character really just be upset with getting spurned by a king, especially a flaky one like Pirro who goes through more marriage proposals than Mozart’s Tito, and when so much that actually is important is going on (lives at stake), it becomes difficult to find Ermione credible. The gran scena di Ermione is not really all that interesting; it has fleeting moments of dramatic power and the cabaletta con coro at the end brings a lot of life to it following her encounter with Oreste, but much of it is very boring and it is hardly the complex triumph of music and staging that is the trezettone of Maometto II. Overall, however, one can tell that Rossini was well on his way to writing the latter opera and so this is either a weak A or a strong A-.

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