Rossini Turns 21, with 'Aureliano in Palmira'

The drama is set during the third century AD. Its main conflict is between Aureliano, the Emperor of Rome, and Zenobia, the Queen of Palmira, now in Syria, where the action takes place. Zenobia is a sort of warrior queen and her aggressive tendencies have angered Rome. As a result, Aureliano and his troops are on the move, with Palmira in their sights. 

ACT ONE opens inside Palmira, at the Temple of Isis. Zenobia is there with her lover Arsace, a Persian prince. They're praying for help against the invading Romans. Arsace confirms his love for Zenobia, saying he'll defend her throne to the death. Zenobia says she would willingly give up her throne to be with Arsace, while the High Priest declares that Fate will ultimately decide the outcome.

Outside the city, the Roman army defeats the Persians. Aureliano's troops praise him as a great conqueror, while he declares that his intention is to bring peace to the conquered territory. Still, he's worried that Arsace's love for Zenobia has turned him into a bitter enemy, and orders him taken into custody.

Hearing that Arsace has been captured, Zenobia wants an audience with Aureliano, who agrees to see her. As she pleads for Arsace's freedom the emperor is clearly impressed by her sincerity -- and by her beauty. He refuses to release Arsace, but when Zenobia begs to see Arsace one last time, Aureliano agrees.

Left alone with Publia, daughter of a former Roman emperor, Aureliano admits that he almost gave in to Zenobia's demands. Publia is amazed by this, but also admits a weakness of her own -- she's in love with Arsace.

In a prison cell, Arsace is surprised when Zenobia arrives for her last visit. Aureliano demands that the two renounce their love, but they refuse. Angry, Aureliano prepares to sack Palmira as the act ends.

As ACT TWO begins, after the battle for Palmira, Zenobia declares that even though the city has been taken, she'll never surrender to Aureliano. Her spirits are bolstered when news comes that Arsace has escaped the battle. Aureliano warns her that Arsace is doomed, though he's obviously impressed by her tenacity.

The scene changes to a peaceful hillside on the Euphrates River, where Arsace has taken refuge. Pondering his defeat, he says he would happily stay there forever -- if only Zenobia were with him.

Back in the city, the Roman noblewoman Publia tells Aureliano that the citizens are declaring allegiance to Arsace. Aureliano thinks his feelings for Zenobia are softening his resolve, and he begs her to renounce Arsace. She refuses, and at Publia's urging, Aureliano leaves to resume the battle.

Meanwhile, Arsace is still in hiding. He assumes he'll never see Zenobia again. So he's overjoyed when her general Oraspe suddenly appears, bringing Zenobia with him. The lovers know they can't elude the Romans forever, and decide to commit suicide. But as Arsace draws his sword, Aureliano appears and disarms him. Angry, Aureliano orders them both imprisoned, and says they'll live out their lives in separate cells.

In the final scene, Publia -- who is still in love with Arsace -- decides that she'll give him up to Zenobia, if only she can save his life, and she goes to Aureliano. As she's begging him to release the prisoners, word comes that Arsace and Zenobia are pleading for clemency.

Aureliano summons them both for an audience. He saysthe best way to demonstrate his power, is to show mercy, and decides to release them, provided they both declare loyalty to Rome. They agree, and everyone celebrates peace.