When Gioachino Rossini premiered Ermione on March 27, 1819, the opera made little impression on his contemporaries. The writer Stendhal dismissed it in two sentences:
"Ermione, 1819, had only a partial success: few of its pieces were applauded. It was an experiment, in which Rossini tried to explore the genre of French opera."
Despite a superb cast, its premiere at the Teatro San Carlo of Naples was soon forgotten, and Ermione was never revived during Rossini's lifetime. Some compositions were absorbed into a pastiche Rossini prepared for Venice and a chorus entered Le Siège de Corinthe. Otherwise, silence.
Yet Ermione's historical failure bore little relation to its quality. Staged revivals since its 1987 reappearance at the Rossini Opera Festival of Pesaro, particularly two seasons at Glyndebourne, have made it clear why Rossini treasured it. His feelings are described by Léon and Marie Escudier in their 1854 biography:
"Rossini knew the quality of his work. He withdrew the misunderstood score from the Neapolitan impresario, saying: 'You will encounter it again, sooner or later, and perhaps then the Neapolitan public will recognize its error.' The master has carefully preserved the manuscript of Ermione […] Recently, he was asked whether he might permit this work to be translated for the French stage: 'No,' he replied, 'it is my little Guillaume Tell in Italian, and it will not see the light of day until after my death.'"
Whether or not this anecdote is authentic, it must be grounded in public perception. How can we explain the enormous gulf between contemporary reception and its importance to the composer?
While Rossini had no need to imitate anyone‹nor was he prepared to abandon his own stylistic world‹Stendhal's reference to France is not inappropriate. The libretto of Ermione was derived by Andrea Leone Tottola from Racine's play Andromaque (1667), so comparisons with French classicism are inevitable. Poet for the royal theaters in Naples, author of almost a hundred libretti, and an important theatrical administrator, Tottola expertly adapted for Rossini themes as diverse as Mosè in Egitto (a biblical story), La donna del lago (adapted from Walter Scott), and Zelmira (a French neo-classical drama). These libretti acknowledge contemporary conventions, but Tottola provided structures diverse enough so that Rossini could individualize each opera.
Racine's drama is based upon the Andromache of Euripedes and other Greek legends tracing the history of the children and consorts of Trojan War heroes. In Euripides, the child of Hector and Andromache, Astyanax, is put to death at Troy. Andromache becomes the slave of Achilles's son, Pyrrhus, with whom she has another child, provoking the fury of Pyrrhus's barren legitimate wife, Hermione (daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy). Racine sought to make Hector's widow more sympathetic by presenting her as torn between fidelity to the memory of Hector and love for Astyanax, who has survived Troy but is in danger of execution if his mother does not submit to Pyrrhus.
Tottola's Ermione is dominated by the French drama, particularly in the second act. It presents four characters consumed in a chain of tragic love: Andromaca, the widow of Hector, faithful to the dead Trojan hero; King Pirro of Epirus, son of Achilles, infatuated with his royal slave Andromaca; Ermione, Pirro's betrothed, furious at having been shunted aside, yet in love with him; and Oreste (pursued by Furies for having murdered his mother Clytemnestra and her husband), whose blind passion for Ermione drives him to murder.
Rossini treated this tale of passion and murder with great integrity, focusing attention on the four protagonists. Each has one major aria, and there are four intensely dramatic duets: Pirro encounters each woman once and there are two duets for Oreste and Ermione (opening the first-act Finale and concluding the opera). The absence of a duet for Ermione and Andromaca in Tottola is consistent with Racine's tragedy, where they exchange few words. (Only three musical numbers exclude the protagonists: a women's chorus; a short orchestral march, which is reprised in Ermione's second act "Gran Scena"; and a duet for two secondary characters, which allows Ermione to rest between her "Gran Scena" and the concluding duet.)
The overture begins with a stark descending minor scale, fortissimo, repeated piano. As tension builds, an offstage men's chorus laments the fall of Troy. Abruptly changing tempo and mood, Rossini alternates lyrical choral meditations and furious orchestral figures. The curtain rises on a prison, where Trojan captives continue their lamentations. Although Andromaca is featured only in this Introduction and in her duet with Pirro, Rossini needs a sympathetic presence against which to develop the tormented Ermione. He thus provides Hector's widow with lyrical and dignified music, laced with sadness. In her duet with Pirro, Rossini sharply differentiates Andromaca's expressive phrases from the extravagant coloratura and self-righteousness of Pirro.
Just as Pirro and Andromaca are differentiated in their duet, Rossini insists on dramatic parallelisms between Pirro and Ermione. Proud children of Achilles and Menelaus, each is possessed by unrequited passion, gravitating between anger, determination to prevail, and self-pity. In the slow movement from their duet, the voices‹mirrors of each other's unhappiness‹alternate, imitate, and ultimately fuse. The cabaletta is constructed of breathless fragments, as its canonic melody weaves from minor to major.
Pirro's extended aria, with flights of coloratura extending two octaves, is motivated by Oreste's insistence that Astianatte, Andromaca's son, be executed. There are also moments of tenderness, as Pirro encourages Andromaca to protect her son by yielding to him. Ermione expresses her anguish and shame in a tense counterpoint, so that an ostensible solo becomes an ensemble.
Oreste's cavatina was the only piece in Ermione to gain fame during the 19th century: several singers regularly inserted it into other operas. His impetuosity is apparent in the orchestral introduction, which rapidly shifts from piano to forte, and in his declaimed outbursts. The short Andantino in minor abruptly turns into a florid cabaletta in major, centered in a very high register. Guided by Ermione, Oreste's naïveté, enthusiasm, and impetuosity lead him with the inevitable force of tragedy to murder.
Ermione wants revenge, and she shamelessly avails herself of the man whom she abandoned to follow Pirro. Although both express remorse in their duet opening the first-act Finale, the remainder of the piece, with Andromaca yielding to Pirro, throws Ermione into a paroxysm of frustration. In her "Gran Scena" she sings three slow sections of intensely contrasting emotions. She begs Fenicio to tell Pirro of her tears, the first she has ever shed. As Cleone consoles her, Ermione proclaims in a second section that her love remains strong. When the wedding procession for Pirro and Andromaca approaches, Ermione's smoldering feelings are vented in a third lyrical section, with fragments of syllabic, declamatory melody.
The entrance of Oreste and the chorus breaks the mood. Recast pianissimo, the music underpins the dialogue in which Ermione hands Oreste a dagger and promises to yield herself if he kills Pirro. As the confused Oreste exits, Ermione launches into a cabaletta of revenge: the irregular melodic line stops and starts, flies chromatically between registers, and soars in coloratura to its cadence.
Having set in motion the murder of Pirro, her thoughts cannot hold still. In a powerful recitative, she imagines the spectacle inside the temple, and every nuance is captured in Rossini's music. As the tension builds, Oreste reenters with the bloody dagger: "You are revenged." "Revenged!" she exclaims, "and with what blood?" The innocent Oreste, taking it as a real question, relates the particulars of Pirro's death. Following each detail, the music shifts from key to key and concludes only when he returns the dagger. Instead of accepting it, Ermione calls him a beast, a traitor, an assassin. Only then does Oreste realize what he has done; in a final Vivace, the overlapping voices invoke the Furies that haunt Oreste.
Oreste's companion Pilade arrives with the Greeks. With a few inchoate words Ermione falls senseless, while the distraught Oreste is hurried off.
Rossini's Neapolitan operas, and Ermione in particular, reveal a composer striving to create mature, independent works of art, each with a definite character, each addressing the problem of convention and originality. Rossini's disillusionment with the contemporary Italian theater can be read in these stillborn masterpieces, carelessly rejected by a Neapolitan public that found them incomprehensible. The composer responded first by leaving Italy, then retiring from the stage, a cynically detached observer, conscious of what he could offer but psychologically incapable of pressing his claim.
We are among the first really to hear Ermione. Rossini's "little Guillaume Tell" has returned to the operatic stage, as he predicted, where it promises to remain so long as gifted singers continue to negotiate its difficult but immensely rewarding vocal demands.
Philip Gossett is an internationally acclaimed musicologist and a professor of music at the University of Chicago. This article is reprinted with permission from The Santa Fe Opera.