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8.660291-92 - ROSSI, L.: Cleopatra (Sferisterio Opera Festival, 2008)
Lauro Rossi (1812–1885)
Melodramma in Four Acts
Cleopatra – Dimitra Theodossiou
Cleopatra was first performed at the Teatro Regio, Turin on 5 March 1876
‘Who was Lauro Rossi?’ asked the director. ‘Until now I’ve never heard a single note from his operas. But we have worked with great enthusiasm on this production of Cleopatra and watched it gradually taking shape. It’s so rewarding to see a piece that nobody knew beginning to come alive, the more deeply we study it’.
Pier Luigi Pizzi’s was a good question. From a century and a country that gave the world Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini—among many other celebrated composers—who was Lauro Rossi? What did he achieve?
Rossi was born on 19th February 1812 (some sources claim 1810) in Macerata, an historic Italian town twenty kilometres from the country’s east coast and twice that distance south of Ancona. His student years were spent in Naples, studying at the Music Conservatory with several different teachers. Two of them, Niccolò Zingarelli and Giovanni Furno, were highly regarded composers who could both claim Vincenzo Bellini as one of their earlier pupils and a third teacher, Girolamo Crescentini, was a world renowned castrato, impresario and composer. There is no doubt that Rossi was well taught.
Young Lauro’s first opera was Costanza e Oringaldo, (whose composition he shared with an older colleague, Pietro Raimondi), written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1830. Other works came thick and fast and Rossi was soon noticed by Gaetano Donizetti, on whose recommendation he was offered an appointment at the Teatro Valle in Rome. His tenth opera, a ‘comic melodrama’ La casa disabitata, had its première at La Scala, Milan in 1834, on the strength of which he was commissioned to compose a vehicle for the great Spanish mezzo Maria Malibran, to be produced in Naples in 1834. Alas, Amelia or Otto anni di costanza (Eight faithful years) was not the success that either diva or composer dreamed of and, in his disappointment, Rossi took his talents overseas, first to Vera Cruz in Mexico and later to New York, Havana and New Orleans, where for several years he was music director and organizer of different opera companies. In 1841 he married one of the principal singers, soprano Isabella Obermeyer, and two years later Signor and Signora Rossi returned to Europe, where he again achieved considerable success in theatres around Italy and beyond with a variety of new operas, both tragic and comic. The most popular of these was the opera comica entitled Il domino nero, first presented in Milan in 1849. Rossi was a well-to-do, friendly and respected figure.
A career change was imminent, however, and in 1850 Rossi was appointed Director of the Milan Conservatory of Music, a rôle which initially reduced his opportunities for composing but allowed him to write a celebrated tome—Guida di armonia practica orale—the standard work on harmony for musicians of many disciplines. Shortly before he relinquished the Directorship, Rossi was invited by Giuseppe Verdi to contribute to a Requiem Mass in memory of Gioachino Rossini, who had died in 1868. It was Verdi’s notion that thirteen Italian composers (all of whom, apart from Verdi himself, are almost entirely forgotten today) should pay respects to their late colleague in this touching way and the ‘compilation’ Mass was completed in 1869; Rossi’s contribution to this project was the Agnus Dei for solo alto but, because of various disagreements with the authorities, the Mass was not performed as planned and the re-discovered manuscript was edited and finally presented for the first time in public only in 1988.
Despite the success of six further operas while working as Director in Milan, academe still called Lauro Rossi and from 1870 to 1878 he held high office at the Music Conservatory in Naples, during which time he composed Cleopatra, his penultimate opera. His last, Biorn, was a particularly bizarre piece. Based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, it was set to an English text with the plot transferred to Norway and was first performed at the old Queen’s Theatre in Long Acre, Covent Garden in 1877. It was a terrible failure and the following year the theatre itself closed down, though whether as a direct result of the disastrous Biorn is not clear. In 1880 Rossi retired to the eminently musical town of Cremona; not far distant was Milan, where some of his most successful works had received their first performances during the preceding 45 years. He achieved much in his life, composing not only 29 operas, but also a Mass, an oratorio Saul, a memorial work for the patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, elegies on the deaths of Bellini and Mercadante, a quantity of chamber and orchestral music and a handful of other works.
Rossi died on 5th May 1885 having lived a full and famous life; but today, 125 years later, he would still be forgotten, were it not for the directors of the 2008 Macerata Sferisterio Festival, whose imaginative research has rediscovered the composer and his Cleopatra for a new generation of opera lovers.
Cleopatra has long been a popular subject with operatic composers. Antonio Canazzi, who set a libretto in 1653, was probably the first and other versions of the story, principally from Italy and Germany, followed—and kept following. Literally dozens of operas based on the Egyptian queen’s exotic life are known, including offerings by Cimarosa in 1789, Paer in 1808 and Massenet in 1914, to name some of the better-remembered composers; and not forgetting Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber, whose première inaugurated the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1966.
Non-operatic works celebrating Antony’s ‘serpent of old Nile’ have been successful too; Berlioz’s scena, La mort de Cléopâtre, composed when Lauro Rossi was sixteen and studying in Naples, is perhaps the best known. The Italian Luigi Mancinelli composed incidental music for Pietro Cossa’s play Cleopatra in 1877, just a year after Rossi’s opera was first performed but one composer who did not take Cleopatra as a subject was Giuseppe Verdi. But then, in 1871, five years before Rossi’s opera, he had composed and achieved one of the greatest successes of his career with Aida, an influential Egyptian subject if ever there was one.
The links between Aida and Cleopatra are telling. With the public appetite for ancient Egypt thoroughly whetted, Lauro Rossi must have relished the opportunity to serve up an unofficial sequel, based on historical, rather than Verdi’s imaginary, characters and events. Of course, Verdi’s is the greater opera, with its spectacular setting, its grandeur, and unforgettable melodic lines; but Rossi undoubtedly realised the value of maintaining the momentum of Verdi’s Egyptian theme and his undeservedly forgotten work contains some wonderful arias and set pieces. The banquet scene of Act 1, Cleopatra’s aria in Act 2, the thrilling ensemble that closes Act 3, the confrontation between Cleopatra and Cesare in the final act—and much else besides—all make compelling viewing and listening.
It is worth noting that the three principal singers in the first performance of Cleopatra (Turin, 1876) had all appeared in productions of Aida during the previous three years; Rossi was certainly offering Verdi a certain form of flattery …
The tenor Filippo Patierno (1835–1877) was the original Antonio in Cleopatra. After his début in Florence in 1860 he sang at many of the major theatres in Italy, taking rôles including Radames (Aida), Duca (Rigoletto), Riccardo (Un ballo in maschera), Arnoldo (William Tell) and the title rôle in Gomes’ Salvatore Rosa; his early death clearly robbed Italian opera of a fine singer—perhaps a future Otello.
Romano Nannetti (1845–1910) was the first Cesare. He first sang professionally in Trieste in 1870 and visited London in 1873, where he was Mephisto in Gounod’s Faust. He appeared as Ramfis in North America’s first Aida in 1873 and returned to London for the British première of Boito’s Mefistofele in 1880. Nannetti appeared with success in Lisbon, Paris, Madrid and St Petersburg and retired to Rome, where he taught for a number of years.
The aptly named Teresina Singer (1848?–1925) was born in Bohemia, making her début in Vienna in 1871. She sang Aida at La Scala in 1873, followed by Marguerite in Faust, and appeared in Buenos Aires in 1878. Her career was then based around Rome, Turin and Valencia; in later years she became a mezzo, singing Amneris and Carmen and, after retirement in 1891, taught in Florence.
Of these principals, only Singer took part in the second production of Cleopatra, which was staged at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples during the 1877–78 season; and that appears to be the full complement of performances achieved until Rossi’s Egyptian queen was again so persuasively brought to life in Pier Luigi Pizzi’s production at Macerata’s Sferisterio Opera Festival in July 2008. It was an appropriate setting for the revival, being performed in the Teatro Lauro Rossi, named in honour of the city’s musical son. The director had chosen ‘Seduction’ as his theme for the Festival’s repertoire and thus productions of Tosca and Carmen joined Cleopatra in representing the best of the seductive arts in opera. Rossi’s work was presented in an edition newly-prepared by Bernado Ticci, who decided to omit the opera’s original overture, leaving a short orchestral introduction to Diomede’s opening scene in Act 1; and at the opening of Act 4 his removal of an explanatory scene for Diomede with chorus certainly tightens the action and allows Antonio to make full dramatic impact with his ‘Azio’ recitative and aria. Apart from those changes, we hear the opera as the composer intended.
Cleopatra lives again and her revival, it must be hoped, will lead to a serious re-evaluation of the extensive, but little known, work of one of Italy’s forgotten masters, Lauro Rossi.
The opera is set in Egypt and Rome, around the year 32 BC
In Cleopatra’s palace
 Diomede, a counsellor to the Egyptian queen, foresees the nation’s downfall, now that Cleopatra is besotted with love for the Roman Triumvir, Antonio. The priests have received ominous messages from the goddess in the temple and insist on being heard; although the glorious reputation of Egypt’s past is jeopardised, there is hope that the dire situation may be kept from the queen’s loyal subjects.
 The offstage chorus of slaves knows only the delights of love but when Antonio and Cleopatra enter, the priests again warn of danger and Diomede rails jealously against Antonio. As the lovers express most tender feelings …
 …Diomede fears that the queen has set a trap to kill him.
 He reflects on Cleopatra’s plans for his death, despite which he cannot quench his undying adoration of her.
 At the banquet a dancer entertains and the chorus offer their greetings to Antonio and Cleopatra, celebrating the joys of life.
 The lovers call for wine and Antonio tells the beautiful Cleopatra how proud he is to be at her side.
 He drinks to the wonders of the night, to the moon and, chiefly, to Cleopatra herself; as he does so, a trumpet announces the arrival of the messenger, Proculejo. Cleopatra fears bad news and her misgivings are justified. Antonio must return to Rome and, he reads with increasing anger, should he refuse, Rome will send forces against Egypt forthwith. Antonio tears up the message in contempt as Cleopatra vows to be true to him. He returns to his drinking song, rejoicing in his lover’s company; as he leaves to obey his orders, the Egyptians declare that they will overcome Rome’s war-mongering intentions, as love shall conquer all.
A room in the palace, near Alexandria
 This is the day when Antonio is expected to return to Egypt from Rome—but he does not appear. The chorus offers solace to Cleopatra, now bereft in her palace. She is desolate without her lover but Carmiana, her confidante, gives comfort.
 Cleopatra chastises the oracles for misleading her; she has scanned the horizon for a sign of Antonio’s ship—but there is none—and she despairs of seeing him again.
 In sorrow she begs to be granted the speed of the wind, so that she may to go to Antonio and tell him of her sadness—but if this is denied her, at least she sends her heartfelt sighs as a message and calls for piercing eyes, like the sun, to be able to see him in distant Rome.
 Diomede intrudes on Cleopatra’s painful solitude and confronts her about an attempt on his life, initiated by the queen herself. She pleads that she was advised by an unfavourable god, who counselled her to plan his death. Diomede’s life has been filled with pain since his Roman rival stole Cleopatra’s affection; he has long hoped that one day the queen would again return his feelings and Cleopatra concedes that she has treated Diomede cruelly.
 She is devastated when he casts doubt on her lover’s fidelity and he tells her of a rumour that Antonio has found a new love. Furious, she determines to go to Rome, prepared to poison her as-yet unknown rival. Diomede urges her, for Egypt’s sake, not to be hasty but nothing will stop the scorned queen from planning murderous revenge.
The palace of Ottavio Cesare in Rome
 Ottavia is to be married to Antonio; her attendants praise the joyful day and wish her happiness. The bride acknowledges their greeting but secretly wonders whether Antonio will ever be able to forget his love for Cleopatra.
 Her future seems set so fair, yet something restrains her from taking her place at the marriage altar, despite the encouragement of those friends around her.
 Ottavia’s brother, the Triumvir Ottavio Cesare, and Antonio join her and re-assuringly invite her to approach the altar.
 In a trio with chorus, the three characters reflect their feelings, as Antonio gently leads his bride away, leaving Cesare alone.
 He triumphantly reveals that he never dreamt that such a day as this would dawn.
 His plans for the Roman Empire will no longer be confined to the West but can now be laid for Eastern conquests. The marriage of his sister to Antonio will help him to realise the ambitions for power and glory that he has so long cherished.
A street in Rome
 The chorus rejoices in the marriage of Ottavia and Antonio as Diomede arrives, closely followed by Cleopatra. Prevented by Diomede from intruding on the ceremony…
 …Cleopatra confronts Antonio when he emerges with his bride. Thus has he rewarded her love but, if he will return to her, she will withhold the vengeance she has sworn to wreak on Ottavia. A splendid and complex ensemble develops in which the principals and chorus convey their innermost emotions. Ottavia is distraught, Cesare incensed, Antonio rejects Cleopatra’s passionate pleadings and Diomede sees that his love for her may not be in vain.
 Cleopatra attempts to stab her rival but is prevented by Antonio. She threatens death and destruction if her hopes to claim him back are not fulfilled, but the fall of Egypt is foreseen if she does not withdraw. At the ensemble’s climax, Cesare restrains Antonio and prevents his being tempted back by Cleopatra as the protagonists depart in horror and confusion.
A square in Alexandria
 Antonio is alone, distraught at the loss of the Battle of Actium which he has fought (allied to Cleopatra) against the forces of Cesare. He blames the Egyptian queen for her perfidy, as she intends to make peace with Cesare, and seeks only oblivion following his defeat.
 As his eyes burn with hot tears he remembers his brave warriors who have lost their lives in battle. A fanfare announces the arrival of his friends …
 …who tell him that Cesare is expected at Cleopatra’s palace and is being spoken of in heroic terms. Antonio cannot countenance the thought of living longer; his hopes of victory, and of regaining Cleopatra’s love, have vanished and he intends to die as a brave Roman. His friends surround him as he prepares to take his own life.
 The queen admits to Carmiana that she left the scene of battle because she could no longer bear the horrors of war. She knows that, because of her actions, she is once more rejected by Antonio but her confidante asks whether she will be able to tame the pride of the victor, Cesare. True to herself, Cleopatra is confident that she still has the power to make men love her.
 Cesare enters and exchanges terms for a treaty with Cleopatra. She will cede certain territories to Rome if Cesare will ensure that her throne in Egypt is secure; but it is soon clear that their mutual interest is not merely political.
 The hurried arrival of Proculejo brings the news of Antonio’s death by his own hand. Cesare roundly blames Cleopatra for this outcome as well as for destroying Ottavia’s marriage to Antonio, a tragedy which will be avenged by the gods. Cesare scorns the queen, threatens to overturn her rule and commands that she accompany him to Rome, which she vehemently refuses.
 Alone once more, Cleopatra can see no solution other than through death. Diomede has anticipated her predicament and brings her an asp concealed in a basket, with which to poison herself. Cesare enters imperiously and once more orders Cleopatra to Rome. As she refuses yet again she removes the asp and presses it to her neck, knowing that death will soon overtake her.
 She addresses her final words to Cesare, confident that she will at last find peace and will be re-united with her true love, Antonio. In the closing ensemble, Cesare acknowledges Cleopatra’s greatness and Diomede sees the woman he loves dying before him. Antonio’s body is carried in by soldiers and, bidding her friends to remember her fate, she falls lifeless to the ground.
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