Today, Rossini’s new dramatic opera Zelmira is officially premiered at the Theater am Kärntertor in Vienna to kick off the new season. In all, eight Rossini operas, in sixty-three performances, are heard at two theaters over the next three months. Rossini has composed additional music for Zelmira that was not present in the tryout version from February that was heard in Naples. His wife, Isabella Colbran, sings the title role. Unfortunately, she sings through an “indisposition.” Rossini felt the orchestra was deficient in power.
The opera has an incredibly complicated plot centering on the princess Zelmira; her father Polidoro, the deposed king of Lesbos; and her husband Prince Ilo. While Ilo was off defending the country, Azor, the lord of Mytilene and a disappointed suitor of Zelmira, invaded Lesbos. Zelmira faked her father’s death and hid him in the royal mausoleum. Azor is in turn killed by Antenore, who also wants to be king of Lesbos. And that’s all before the opening curtain.
While the Mytilenes mourn the death of Azor, Antenore plots with Leucippo to take the throne by incriminating Zelmira in the death of Azor and her father. Fearing for the safety of her young son, Zelmira confides to her friend Emma that Polidoro is in fact still alive and asks that Emma take the child into hiding. Ilo returns and believes Antenore’s accusations. After Antenore is crowned king, Leucippo attempts to murder Ilo, but Zelmira stops him. When she is found with the dagger in her hand, Zelmira is now accused of trying to murder her husband and is imprisoned.
Zelmira makes the mistake of writing a letter to Ilo explaining that the accusations against her are false and that Polidoro is still alive. Leucippo intercepts the letter and tricks Zelmira into revealing her father’s hiding place. Polidoro is captured and both he and Zelmira are condemned to die. Ilo, ignorant of all this, mourns the ruin of his life and marriage. Emma, however, tells him the truth, and Ilo rescues Zelmira and Polidoro, as Antenore and Leucippo are led off in chains.
The Vienna Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in its issue #32 of April 20th, after recounting the insanely convoluted plot, bemoaned, “It is to be regretted that a pair of scissors were forgotten. They would have separated the first act into two, or would have abbreviated it, because it lasts two full hours.”
Friedrich August Kanne, the editor of the AMZ, is not impressed with opening night; apparently there were some issues with the first performance, with the vocalists not properly judging the space in which they were singing. Isabella Colbran is singled out for straining somewhat in the premiere. A few excuses are offered, such as the change in climate and the higher tuning of German orchestras, but the critic acknowledges that in performing Italian operas the Viennese orchestra’s tonality is already lowered by a quarter tone.
Despite the shortcomings of the piece and its premiere performance, the Viennese public, as would be expected, went crazy for this new opera from Rossini. The AMZ reported it was greeted with “a storm of applause.” Although Zelmira was performed a number of times in Italy, London and Paris during the 1820s, it quickly disappeared from the opera repertoire. It can be heard here in the live 1965 revival in Naples, conducted by Carlo Franci, which was the first time this long-forgotten opera is known to have been performed in about 130 years. Virginia Zeani sings the title role: