Gioachino Rossini: Zelmira (1822)

Opera in two acts. Running Time: 3 hours.

The third in our “Rossini the innovator” series is something of an enigma. It has been contrasted with Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, a personal favourite of mine but not the greatest opera (I enjoy listening to it as background music while I do long stretches of academic typing or when grading). Stendhal of all people claimed that whereas Mozart would have become Italianate with age, Rossini, had he continued to write operas, would have become more German than Beethoven! The music of this opera has been termed “Teutonic”, although it is very obviously an Italian opera, but it is darker musically in tone than probably any of Rossini’s operas, before or afterwards.

Incidentally, all three of the Rossini operas I have recently done have similar structures (each contains exactly 11 musical numbers, although Zelmira includes two bis numbers in the second act). I don’t know if this was deliberate by Rossini but these three of his operas (Maometto, Ermione, Zelmira) have the same number of numbers and the operas surrounding them are usually 13 to 16 or even 18 numbers. Oddly enough I wouldn’t say that there is anything innovative in the structure of this opera, it is more in the orchestration, although many of the numbers have no trace of Stendhal’s Teutonic accusation.

SETTING: (Here is the backstory from the opera’s wikipedia article: “The opera’s complicated plot revolves around Zelmira, her father Polidoro, the wise and beloved king of the Isle of Lesbos, and her husband, Prince Ilo. Before the action begins, Ilo had departed the island to defend his homeland. While he was gone, Azor, the lord of Mytilene and a disappointed suitor of Zelmira, had invaded Lesbos with the intention of assassinating King Polidoro and taking over his throne. Zelmira, however, had managed to conceal her father in the royal mausoleum and then told Azor that he was hiding in the temple to Ceres. Azor burnt down the temple, thinking he had killed the King, but he was in turn killed on orders from Antenore, who also aspired to the throne.”


ACT 1: (109 minutes, the opera proper starts 3 minutes into the video, each act gets a video).

Scene 1: Near the seawalls of the city of Lesbos.

0, 4, 10: Properly, there is no prelude or overture, rather a very brief orchestral introduction that flows immediately into an all-male chorus of Azor’s men mourning him **. It is all very Beethoven-sounding, mild storm music would be an appropriate description, and much of the music starting off the chorus and the scena is repeated material from the instrumental introduction. This goes on for four minutes and then there is a total lull in the drama and Antenore (un tenore!) comes on and gives us an oddly ornery cavatina * (at least the orchestration is weird, the vocal line is nice and includes some fine high tenor work). His friend Leucippo comes on. The aria ends with more oddity but is tuneful * as Antenore plans on spreading a rumour that Zelmira had her father and Azor murdered in order to take power from her. In the following recitative, Zelmira and her confidante Emma discuss the accusation and Emma starts to have misgivings about her friend. In order to clear everything up, Zelmira explains, or rather reveals, that her father isn’t dead at all.

Scene 2: The royal mausoleum.

18: Polidoro’s cavatina ** is underrated. Striking both orchestrally and vocally, the bass actually starts off so high I thought at first that he was a tenor for a few seconds!

24: A trio Polidoro and the two women **, it has a very good tune. This is broken up slightly by an offstage march but it finishes well.

Scene 3: A room in the royal palace.

36: After a rather standard chorus, Zelmira’s husband Ilo returns with a high tenor aria **. This is probably the furthest away from “Teutonic” that one can possibly get while staying within the world of music (excluding maybe for the horns).

49: The Zelmira-Ilo duet **, again the only “Teutonic” thing about this would be the ornament usage of horns. Ilo gets some nice high notes, so does Zelmira but not nearly so higher in her range as his.

57: A feminine chorus comes on with Emma about something distressing about Zelmira’s son * or another. The second half of the duet is more mild but pretty.

Scene 4: Another room.

65.5: After filling Ilo’s head with fake news after Zelmira and having Ilo abdicate the crown to him because he thinks his wife is a serial killer, Antenore goes over his musings with one of the most taxing tenor arias with an extreme range (multiple high Bs all the way down to growling low A-flats!) ***.

77: A duettino ** for Zelmira and Emma, including harp accompaniment, the sort of thing Verdi would do about twenty years later and hardly Teutonic. It sounds a little like a number in Moise actually, tender, maternal.

Scene 5: Before the temple of Zeus.

84: The first act finale is nearly 25 minutes long, it starts off with a stately if rather standard chorus *.

88: Antenore addresses the people as their king *, much of this is a cappella, although her does have on fugitive melody and the chorus a crescendo as well. The High Priest is suitably holy though although in this production he better resembles a Hebrew high priest than a Greek one.

95: Ilo comes on. Leucippo attempts to kill him but Zelmira comes in *, screams, and stops him. But when Ilo looks up it is his wife who has the dagger in her hands so he assumes that she was the one about to kill him. She tries to defend herself, but it is no use. The trio that follows is serviceable but not much else.

99: Zelmira is sentenced to death and a sextet ** begins which is rather nice for the three males, Zelmira and Emma, even the High Priest gets in on it with the chorus.

105: The stretta * is menacing and furious and sounds like part of a Beethoven symphony, but otherwise rather standard.

ACT 2: (70 minutes)

Scene 1: Something somewhere in or around the palace, none of these tableaux descriptions make any sense other than the mausoleum and the temple ones.

9: After a brief but plot important letter from Zelmira to Ilo is intercepted by Leucippo and shared with Antenore there is a gentle female chorus and an aria for–Emma *. WTF? This appears to be an addition to the original score (it is number 8bis and was added only months after the first performance). Interestingly it has some chromatic features. This does nothing to further the plot at all and between the chorus and the aria lasts over a quarter of an hour. It has a nice harp accompaniment, includes Zelmira’s little son (that plot point taken care of), and gives the contralto something to do but otherwise it is a complete waste of time, although for what it is it is tuneful.

Scene 2: Near the royal crypt (?).

23: Ilo discovers that his father-in-law Polidoro is very much alive and Zelmira is innocent *. It is fine, but seems fragmentary and Polidoro’s contribution is a little too standard. It is suitably joyful however, and has this interesting way of stalling or preventing a climactic chord rather well. The flute is a little loud.

42, 48, 52: Zelmira comes on trying to find her father. She has been released by Antenore in order to trick her into leading him to Polidoro. She learns this from Emma, and not apparently from the fact that Antenore and Leucippo have followed her in. Although it takes a while a quintet flowers which is of great beauty **. The second half is more furious ** and develops into a gallop. Notice the quotation from the overture to La clemenza di Tito towards the very end *.

Scene 3: A prison (?)

57, 60: Father and daughter get some touching passages of arioso. Our villains come in to kill them but are stopped by the sound of Ilo’s army storming the palace. Bad guys arrested and good guys give a vote of thanksgiving: Zelmira’s prayer *, harp accompanied and yet another addition to the score (this time from 1826 and numbered 10bis). A sweet and mild piece.

66: Zelmira’s rondo ** of joy wraps up the opera in a rather standard but happy way.


I guess this is Teutonic. The opera is rather military focused, but that doesn’t mean Teutonic. Rossini’s usage of the French Horn (a German instrument) and string effects could be seen as Germanic, but it is a bit of a stretch. The more innovative aspect of the score is its usage of chromaticism although this might not be immediately apparent. The musical highlight is Antenore’s exclamatory aria in the first act upon being basically handed the throne by Ilo. The plot is complicated and also, unfortunately, rather boring. It consists of a series of unfortunately events or units rather than a cohesive dramatic whole and the conclusion (the arrest of Antenore and Leucippo and the restoration of Polidoro to his throne and Zelmira to her son and Ilo) is not really that much of a surprise although after all these tragic operas a happy ending is welcomed. Although not as good as Ermione and pallid in comparison to Maometto II, Zelmira is a worthy, and ultimately happy, B+.

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