Aureliano in Palmira, dramma serio per musica in two acts to a libretto by G. Felice Romani, was first produced at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 26th December 1813.
The singers at the first performances were Luigi Mari (Aureliano), Lorenza Correa (Zenobia), Giovanni Battista Velluti (Arsace), Luigia Sorrentini (Publia), Gaetano Pozzi (Oraspe), Pietro Vasoli (Licinio), Vincenzo Botticelli (Gran sacerdote).
The autograph has been lost.
The story is based on events that took place in 272 B.C., during the Roman Emperor Aurelian’s re-conquest of the wide territories in the East occupied by Zenobia, widow of the King of Palmyra – in the Syria of today – and governed by her on behalf of her son, still a minor. In the course of their military campaign the Romans defeated the army of Palmyra and their allies on numerous occasions, even besieging Palmyra and forcing Zenobia to capitulate. The Queen was captured and carried off to Rome, and in nearby Tivoli enjoyed a luxurious imprisonment for the rest of her life. Despite Felice Romani’s protest that “not for a moment had he strayed from believable events”, the compression of various battles during the course of the opera does not make it easy to follow the plot.
The great Temple of Isis. The priests of Palmyra are trying to gain favour with the Goddess in view of the oncoming battle with the Romans, but the auguries are not promising. The entrance of Arsace, Prince of Persia, and of Zenobia, his beloved, raises their spirits, since the armies of the two nations will be fighting together. News comes that the Roman army has crossed the Euphrates (in reality, about two hundred kilometers away from Palmyra); all prepare for battle. The High Priest of Isis, left alone, observes that however disastrous the result may be to him personally, Arsace will have won imperishable glory. A widespread battlefield after a bloody battle. The Persians are effectively routed and Arsace has been captured. Aurelian tries to convince him to abandon the cause of Zenobia, who by this time is under siege in Palmyra, but all in vain. Zenobia herself comes to visit the Emperor in his camp in an attempt to obtain Arsace’s release. Aurelian, who falls in love with the Queen, refuses the gifts which she has brought as ransom for Arsace and asks her to surrender; but Zenobia, although the captured Persians beg her to give way, is intent on fighting. Inside an ancient fortress where Arsace is imprisoned. Zenobia visits the Prince in his prison. Aurelian joins them and offers Arsace his freedom if he will give up his loving relationship with the Queen. Arsace refuses, and Zenobia tells Aurelian that they will meet on the battlefield.
A vast underground chamber. We are in Palmyra. Zenobia has been defeated and Palmyra taken by storm. The great ones of the kingdom of Palmyra have gathered together in this last refuge, where they are joined by the Queen, closely followed by Aurelian. Once more he places an alternative before Zenobia: she must either give up Arsace or be a part of the triumphal entry of the Roman army onto the Capitol. While Aurelian is listening to Zenobia’s refusal, news arrives that Oraspe, a general in the army of Palmyra, has freed Arsace, who is now a fugitive. A pleasant hillside on the banks of the Euphrates. Shepherds and shepherdesses come out of their cottages in holiday mood, happy that their lowly estate keeps them protected from the hazards of war. Arsace finds his way into this sheltered spot, thinking about his destiny. The shepherds recognize him, and would like the Prince to stay with them in their peaceful retreat; Arsace, however, replies that his place is beside Zenobia. When they hear that Zenobia is in Aurelian’s clutches, Arsace takes up his arms again to free her. A hall in the palace. Meanwhile, in Palmyra, Aurelian (although Publia, the daughter of the late Emperor Valerian, who is in love with Arsace, warns him that it will be wasted labour) once more makes overtures of peace to Zenobia, offering her a throne beside his from which she can reign over the entire world. However, Licinius, a Roman tribune, warns him that Arsace has gathered together his defeated and dispersed soldiers, and is entering into Palmyra with the help of the people. A new battle has therefore become inevitable, and Aurelian goes off. Soon afterwards Zenobia learns of Arsace’s defeat and escapes, helped by Oraspe. A remote spot near the palace, by moonlight. Arsace, oppressed by gloomy thoughts, manages to meet Zenobia, and they engage in amorous discourse for the last time. When Aurelian comes on, Arsace decides firstly to kill Zenobia and then commit suicide; the arrival of the Romans prevents this. Although Aurelian is furious at these proofs of the indissoluble love between Arsace and Zenobia, he cannot help admiring their constancy. A hall in the palace. Publia, giving up all idea of love for Arsace, begs Aurelian to save him. The leading citizens of Palmyra also plead for him. When Aurelian has considered these appeals, he decides to be merciful. If Arsace and Zenobia will swear eternal loyalty to Rome, they may freely return to reigning over their kingdoms. The two lovers duly swear loyalty and the opera concludes among the general rejoicing.