This was the first performance in modern times of Giovanni Paisiello’s Zenobia in Palmira and was enjoyed at the Teatro di Corte (Court Theatre) in the Royal Palace by a restricted audience, due to the limited number of seats. Performances like this are undoubtedly a labour of love, and represent a reminder that there are lots of musical riches available in the archives, to be sought off the beaten track.  

2016 is the year of Paisiello (200 years since his death) and it was a good opportunity to bring back to life one of the less performed operas of this Apulian-Neapolitan musician who was one of the best known and most influential composers in his lifetime. The young Mozart met him in Naples and studied his style, and wrote Le nozze di Figaro after watching Paisiello's Il barbiere di Siviglia, as a sequel to it. And his Barber, was an absolutely popular opera, until displaced by Rossini in 1816.

Paisiello composed as many as 94 works for the stage, most of which have not lost their allure and importance, full as they are of tuneful music. Zenobia premiered on 30 May 1790 at the Teatro San Carlo, in Naples, which at that time was perhaps Europe’s most important operatic city. The libretto is not a masterpiece though, full of commonplaces as it is: the story tells of the invasion of Palmyra by the Emperor Aurelian, who is struck by the boldness and courage of Queen Zenobia, with whom he falls in love. But she is in love with Prince Arsace instead, who the young daughter of Emperor Gallienus, Pubblia, also loves. After some ups and downs, Aurelian renounces to Zenobia who eventually joins her Persian suitor.

The opera displays the main features of Paisiello’s compositional style: an elegant melodic line, a noble and austere score, without reaching tragic peaks. Under Francesco Ommassini’s direction, a reduced San Carlo Orchestra played admirably, even using modern instruments, with clear and stern sounds typical of early classical music. The singers were even better. Rosanna Savoia was an outstanding Zenobia, and was well partnered by tenor Leonardo Cortellazzi. Savoia gave the character the necessary allure and regal bearing, and easily overcome all the technical asperities with dramatic agility. Her character’s three arias were masterfully delivered.

Leonardo Cortellazzi was excellent in the role of Aureliano, as he acted with good personality, with a technically refined, well-projected tenor, both in upper and lower registers. Arsace was sung by soprano Tonia Langella whose agility and technical mastery were well displayed in the aria “Se quel caro amabil volto”. Oraspe was mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove, who showed beautiful vocal timbre and a strong personality. Also positive were Sonia Ciani, as Pubblia, and Blagoj Nacoski in the minor role of Licinio.

Director Riccardo Canessa set up a traditional production, following the precise and detailed stage directions contained in Paisiello’s score, using period costume. The narrow scenic spaces of the Court Theatre forced a static dramatization, which was made more profound and open by Alfredo Troisi's video projections.

The production was dedicated by the City of Naples and the Teatro San Carlo to the Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who for forty years directed the archaeological site of Palmyra, a UNESCO World heritage and was killed last August. At the première, in the centre of the hall, there was an empty chair to commemorate him.