By 1815, the 23-year-old Gioacchino Rossini was the dominant force in opera in Italy, with fourteen operas already to his credit. That year, he was appointed music director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, with a contract requiring him to write two operas annually while allowing him to free-lance at other theaters.
The San Carlo was fertile ground for the young composer: the orchestra was superb, a well-trained mixed chorus was in residence, and the finest singers in the world were placed at Rossini's disposal, in particular the great tragedienne-soprano Isabella Colbran (who was to become his first wife) and tenors Giovanni David, Manuel Garcia, and Andrea Nozzari. Between 1815 and 1822 he composed nine serious operas for Naples.
Operas by Gluck, Mozart and Spontini were regularly performed in Naples, so the audience was the most sophisticated in Italy. As a result, Rossini felt free to experiment. He gave the orchestra more prominence (to the degree that he was accused of being "Germanic"); he did away with secco recitative, replacing it with instrumental underpinning that kept the drama flowing; he broke away from the comfortable recitative-aria-cabaletta format, composing longer ensembles and expanding the usual forms with interjections from the chorus and/or other characters. In Mosè in Egitto, he eliminated the overture and introduced pages of purely declamatory singing. The through-composed final act of his Otello (1816) ended with a death onstage, and while this was not the first time such a horror had been thrust upon a Neapolitan audience (the first had come six months earlier, with Carafa's Gabriella di Vergy, in which the heroine, having been handed an urn containing her lover's still-beating heart, expires on the spot), it still astounded. (Later audiences demanded a happy ending to Otello, and Rossini supplied it!)
In 1819, Rossini created Ermione, arguably his finest opera seria, filled with many of the new elements he had been incorporating into the previous few operas. Yet Ermione was received coldly. Rossini withdrew it after one performance and never attempted to revive it during his lifetime; he later claimed that it was "for posterity."
Perhaps the joyless, anxiety-filled plot was half the problem‹Ermione contains no moments of compassion, joy, or lightness. Andrea Leone Tottola closely based his libretto on a tragedy by Racine, which had, itself, loosely followed Euripides' Andromache. The result is a bleak plot. Stendhal's description of the action of Ermione is not far off: "The dramatic personae spent every instant they were given on stage in losing their tempers with one another, with the result that the entire opera was fixed in an obstinate mood of anger, which in the end proved very monotonous."
Stendhal captured the tense, furious atmosphere of the opera well‹until his final subordinate clause. This highly charged, anguish-filled drama is anything but "monotonous"!
Oreste loves Ermione, who loves Pirro, who loves Andromaca (and blackmails her into marrying him by threatening the life of her son), who cares only for her son. There are no gentle moments between characters in the opera. By the Act I finale, the tormented Pirro, Oreste, and Ermione are overtly resenting one another, while Andromaca is foreseeing her suicide.
No stranger to malice himself, Pirro asks Ermione, "Who could ever surpass you in cruelty?" And, indeed, our heroine is a monster. In her first recitative to the chorus, she tells them that her heart has "room only for vengeance and cruelty." A few moments later, she says, "I am angry, I am crushed. I hate Pirro, I hate Oreste, I hate myself." It's a staggering acknowledgment, making Medea appear a model of mental stability. Ermione convinces the naïve, passion-crazed Oreste (in rather vulnerable condition since he is being pursued by the Furies for killing his mother) to murder Pirro. Obsessed with her and confused, he does so, but when he reports the deed to Ermione, she turns on him savagely: "Go and hide yourself! You are worse than any wild beast." She tells him he should have heeded her heart rather than her words, and cursing him, she falls into a faint as he races away.
Ermione causes the murder of one monarch and turns another into a fugitive. With Pirro's death, her own hopes and future are doomed and political stability is upset. There is no deus-ex-machina, no Fortinbras to save the Danes, no Malcolm to denounce the "dead butcher and his fiend-like Queen" and take over Scotland. And so Rossini's audiences were left with chaos, having watched and listened to the depressed, paranoid, vengeful, humiliated, spiteful Ermione, a thoroughly developed anti-heroine the likes of whom they had never encountered before‹and, frankly, haven't since. Indeed, in this opera without heroes, they had no one to hold on to at all.
Musically, they were hardly on steadier, more comfortable ground. Less than a minute into the gloomy overture, a chorus of fallen Trojans sings from behind the curtain‹a first in Naples‹and its dark, downward scale motif is picked up in the opening scene, integrating an already tradition-breaking overture into the opera as never before. This gives the lie to those who claim that Rossini's overtures are interchangeable; here we have one which is so mood- and-music-specific as to be unique.
Similarly, Rossini is often accused of writing all-purpose coloratura, suitable to situations either merry or tragic. But throughout Ermione, there is no ornament, no run that is not nervous, angry, or otherwise expressive. Stendhal referred to Colbran's "lava stream of roulades," and Richard Osborne, in his biography Rossini, cites the "writing for heroic tenor which is awful"‹in its potency, that is.
There are only eight musical numbers in Ermione, but none of them is conventional: They are all interrupted by either a recitative, chorus, or some linking dramatic utterance. Yet even given the atmosphere and innovations, the Neapolitans were hardly prepared for Ermione's final scena, either dramatically or musically. Drawn out over four scenes and lasting more than half an hour, it is broken only by a four-minute duet for secondary characters who act as a Greek Chorus: "Love without judgment, you always bring misfortune," they sing, and offer a prayer to the gods for mercy.
Ermione's lengthy final scene is a harrowing one, full of variations and deepenings of her emotional crisis. A brief, direct, self-pitying aria ("Di, che vedesti piangere") is interrupted by recitative; another, more elaborate, but still maudlin aria ("Amata, l'amai") follows. Andromaca and Pirro's wedding chorus and procession interrupt, and Ermione loses her composure‹and reason‹completely. She slowly sings ten six-note phrases which seem to go nowhere musically‹one line up, one down, one or two wandering. Any recognizable musical form has fallen to pieces; the vocal line is the musical equivalent of a tiger roaming its cage slowly, deciding what to do next. Oreste enters, the music quickens maniacally, and Ermione's coloratura breaks loose into jagged, unpredictable lines: Here is Colbran's "lava stream of roulades." Ermione orders Oreste to kill Pirro, and the opera's tragic denouement begins. One might say that Ermione's music "becomes a perfect (musical) metaphor for the emotional and mental state of the opera's chief protagonist." That quote, however, from Douglas Jarman's entry in Grove Music Online, was written about Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Rossini's Neapolitan audience, accustomed to tunes and crescendi, was doubtless unready for this precursor to German Expressionism.
Even in our own, presumably more hardened times, audiences cannot fail to be struck by Ermione's emotional power, its raw display of exposed nerve endings, and the originality of Rossini's musical genius, which broke so radically with the model of 18th-century opera seria. It took almost two centuries, but Ermione is has now been rediscovered and fully revealed as a path-breaking opera and one of the most compelling items in Rossini's glorious catalogue.
Robert Levine is Senior Editor of ClassicsToday.com, and Editor at Large for Amadeus Press; his work also appears in Stereophile magazine and International Record Review.