Gerard Hoffnung CDs
Ciro in Babilonia (1812) [131.59]
Baldassare – Riccardo
Ciro – Anna Rita Gemmabella (contralto)
Amira – Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade (mezzo)
Argene – Maria Soulis (mezzo)
Zambri – Wojtek Gierlach (bass)
Arbace – Giorgio Trucco (tenor)
Daniele – Giovanni Bellavia (bass-baritone)
ARS Bunensis Chamber Choir
Wurttemberg Philharmonic Orchestra/Antonino Fogliani
rec. live, 16, 22, 24 July 2004, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany
NAXOS 8.660203-04 [61.50
Ciro in Babilonia was
Rossini’s first serious opera, written when he was just 20
for the Lent season at Ferrara. Previously he had had some
success with comic and semi-comic operas, with the one-act
farse La cambiale di matrimonio and L’inganno felice written
for Venice and the two-act L’equivoco stravagante written
Rossini had previous links with Ferrara, which lead
to the commission for Ciro. For the 1809-1810
season, he had directed from the harpsichord Orlandi’s opera Il
podesta di Chioggia and written a substitute aria for
the tenor, Monelli. This would be when he met the director
of Ferrara’s Teatro Communale, Count Aventi. It was Aventi
who recommended Rossini for the 1812 commission; Aventi also
suggested that the leading role of Ciro (a breeches part)
be written for Marietta Marcolini. Rossini had already written
the leading role in L’equivoco stravagante for her.
The original, anonymous, libretto was found lacking
for reasons that are no longer, discernible. At the last
minute Count Aventi took over responsibility for the libretto,
though he used the plot outline from the rejected work. Aventi
had experience writing cantata texts but this was his first
opera. Some of Aventi’s writing seems to have inspired the
composer, but the dramatic structure of the piece is somewhat
wanting. A more experienced composer might have mitigated
these problems, but Rossini was writing his first serious
This means that such potential dramatic coups as the
writing on the wall - the opera concerns Belshazzar (Baldassare)
and Cyrus (Ciro) - are handled so badly that they fly past
almost without notice.
Because the opera was performed in Lent, it had to have
a sacred subject, so we have the familiar story of Baldassare
(Belshazzar) King of Babylon (Riccardo Botta, tenor) and
his defeat by Ciro (Cyrus) King of Persia (Anna Rita Gemmabella,
contralto). But this is heavily dressed up with romantic
intrigues and plotting relating to Ciro’s wife, Amira (Luisa
Islam-Ali-Zade, mezzo), who is Baldassre’s prisoner. She
is helped by a captain in Baldassare’s army, Arbace (Giorgio
Trucco, tenor) who was born a Persian and is known to Amira’s
lady in waiting, Argene (Maria Soulis, mezzo).
The resulting opera seems to have had some popularity
and went on to receive further productions both in Italy
and abroad. However, Rossini’s memory of the work’s first
performance, recounted some twenty years later, was not a
happy one. In the CD booklet, Reto Muller speculates that
Rossini was getting confused between the reception of Ciro and
the performances of Tancredi a year later. It was
at this performance of Tancredi that Rossini replaced
the original happy ending by the tragic end, a replacement
that did not go down very well with the original audience.
But, whatever Rossini ultimately thought of the work,
it is undoubtedly true that the inexperience of both librettist
and composer is evident. That said, there are some very fine
individual moments. Rossini did not create any large-scale,
multi-part scenes in the manner of his later works, but there
are many individual arias which are worth hearing.
This new recording of the work is taken from live performances
at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. With one notable exception
(see below), Rossini’s original performers seem to have been
a pretty talented bunch and the resulting piece requires
a cast who can handle some seriously virtuoso music.
The cast are by no means ideal, but they handle Rossini’s
music very creditably and perform it with considerable dramatic
bravura. We might have cavils about individual voices but
there is no doubt about their vividly dramatic performances.
Neither tenor is ideal; Riccardo Botta as Baldassare
has a bright, rather tight sounding voice and Giorgio Trucco
as Arbace has a rather steely top. But both acquit themselves
well technically. Wojtek Gierlach as Zambri, a Babylonian
Prince, has an attractive, grainy baritone voice.
A curiosity of the female casting is that there is no
soprano, instead we have two mezzo-sopranos and one contralto.
The heroine Amira is labelled as a soprano role, but Luisa
Islam-Ali-Zade copes pretty well with the tessitura. Her
voice has quite a fast, tight vibrato - an acquired taste
- and she does show some strain in the upper register. But
she delivers Amira’s virtuoso arias with an aplomb that makes
up for much.
In the breeches role of Ciro, Anna Rita Gemmabella displays
a rich, deep contralto voice. She is an expressive singer,
but again displays a significant vibrato.
The original singer of the role of Argene was of very
limited ability and Rossini wrote for her an aria on a single
note. He subsequently revised this aria for later performances.
On this disc, Rossini’s later version is given to the orchestra
but the singer performs the one-note version – the result
is quite curious and surprisingly successful.
It is a sign of Count Aventi’s lack of interest in the
mechanics of the biblical plot that the prophet Daniel gets
only one aria, and that happens after the writing on the
wall scene has happened. Giovanni Bellavia gives Daniel suitable
gravitas in his single aria.
The singers are well supported by the ARS Bunensis Chamber
Choir and the Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra. Because
of the religious nature of the plot, there is quite a significant
choral part and the choir acquit themselves well. Antonino
Fogliani directs admirably from the harpsichord, he also
prepared the edition used here.
This is neither vintage Rossini nor a vintage performance.
But there is sufficient interesting music in strong, bravura
performances to make this well worth investigating.
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