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Bellini's 'Zaira': Misunderstood Melodrama

Imagine this scenario: One of Hollywood's leading directors releases a much-ballyhooed movie based on a top bestseller, featuring dazzling special effects and a handful of Oscar-winning stars — and it's a bust, disappearing from theaters after a couple of weeks.

That's basically what happened to Vincenzo Bellini when his opera Zaira opened, in 1829.

Until then, Bellini had been a rising star. He had just scored two consecutive hits at the premiere Italian opera house, Milan's La Scala, with his operas Il pirata and La Straniera. Still in his mid-20s, the successful, young composer was asked to write an opera to dedicate a grand theater in Parma, another leading center of opera in Italy.

The new opera seemed to have everything going for it. It was based on Zaire, a tragedy by Voltaire. The libretto was by Felice Romani, who had already collaborated with Bellini on the two hits at La Scala. The story was brimming with sensational elements: passionate romance, violent conflict, international intrigue and an exotic setting.

None of that helped Zaira. Both critics and audiences reacted coolly at its premiere. The opera ran for just eight performances, and was only heard one more time in the next 140 years.

It's hard to say exactly why Zaira didn't work for Bellini, but it may have been a simple case of musical politics. His two hits were both premiered in Milan. Zaira opened in Parma, where the operatic roost was ruled by one of Bellini's competitors: Gioachino Rossini. So it could be that Rossini's supporters simply didn't want to see an upstart in his twenties celebrating yet another hit on their home turf.

Still, the situation was hardly unusual in the cutthroat world of 19th-century, Italian opera, and Bellini still had options. Often, composers in his situation would simply retool a failed opera, take it to another city, and try again. Bellini decided on a different approach. He took much of the music from Zaira and recycled it into his very next opera, The Capulets and the Montagues, which fared much better. But that success, coupled with the new opera's recycled music, basically forced Bellini to put Zaira on the shelf — and it's been there pretty much ever since.

Today, though, it could be that Zaira is actually more relevant and timely than the opera that inherited some of its best numbers. Both dramas are about star-crossed lovers; The Capulets and the Montagues is Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet story.

Zaira has a similar plot line. Its title character is a young woman who, like Juliet, falls deeply in love with a man her family disapproves of — violently. But with Zaira's doomed romance, it's not just a case of a local, family feud. Zaira is a Christian woman in love with a Muslim sultan. So the dispute is rooted in global conflict, and religious animosity — elements that remain all too familiar in today's world.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Bellini's Zaira in a performance from the Opéra Berlioz in Montpellier, France. It stars an international cast, including Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan and Chinese baritone Wenwei Zhang, with the exciting young Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho in the title role.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.
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