Early Rossini gem gets US premiere

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — To hear Will Crutchfield tell it, he got the job of finding the missing pieces of Gioachino Rossini's "Aureliano in Palmira" because he asked a few too many questions.

The conductor and musicologist had been invited to lead a different work, "Ciro in Babilonia," at the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's hometown of Pesaro, Italy. The festival was mounting all 39 of his operas in "critical editions," meaning versions as authentic as scholarship can make possible.

"I asked the editors to send me the source material, I got into a few arguments with them," Crutchfield recalled in a recent interview. "And my punishment was that for the next opera they asked me to do the edition myself."

That next opera — and last in the cycle — was "Aureliano," which Crutchfield performed at Pesaro in 2014 and which he will present at the Caramoor festival in Katonah, New York, on Saturday.

The need for detective work arose from the fact that the autograph manuscript of the original score — the one the composer wrote out by hand — disappeared after its premiere at Milan's La Scala in 1813. It was the 12th of 39 operas Rossini would turn out in just 17 years, before retiring from opera after "William Tell" in 1829.

Crutchfield never did unearth the original score. Instead, he visited libraries and museums on two continents, from New York and Boston to Vienna and Hamburg, painstakingly comparing partial versions which had been used in theaters throughout Italy following the premiere.

These varied widely. "For one thing, details tend to disappear in the copying process," he said. "Also, operas were adapted for the cast the theater had, so sometimes you find an entirely different aria has been stuck in, or a scene has been cut."

Because of these changes, "Aureliano" remained what Crutchfield called a "sort of black sheep" among Rossini's operas, dropping from sight completely after the 1830s until a few revivals in the late 20th century. None of those, however, had access to the full score.

Even so, fragments remained popular. For one thing, the overture was so successful that Rossini promptly recycled it, along with some other tunes, for "The Barber of Seville." And when the novelist Stendhal published his biography of Rossini in 1824 he raved about the duet, "Se tu m'ami, o mia regina" ("If you love me, oh my queen"), writing that "by plunging the listener into the remotest, most mysterious depths of reverie, it performs the miracle which is the surest hallmark of truly great music."

Eventually Crutchfield identified 14 passages, adding up to nearly a half-hour of music missing from most versions.

"Some of it is the best stuff," he said, "and in the short version some pieces sort of start and never quite get going and just finish. So they seem sort of insignificant, but then if you get the middle section all of a sudden, oh, yeah, this feels like a great Rossini aria.

"As we discovered what was really there," he continued, "we realized, wow, we have this really strong but totally unknown Rossini opera to present. And that was a thrill."