Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ciro in Babilonia (also known as La Caduta di Baldassare - Cyrus in Babylon or The Fall of Belshazzar) -
drama with chorus in two acts (1812)
Baldassare. King of the Assyrians in Babylon - Michael Spires (tenor); Ciro, King of Persia, disguised as an ambassador - Ewa Podles (alto); Amira, wife of Ciro, prisoner of Baldassare - Jessica Pratt (mezzo); Argene, her confidante, - Carmen Romeu (mezzo); Zambri, a Babylonian prince - Mirco Palazzi (bass); Arbace, captain of Baldassare's army - Robert McPherson (tenor); Daniello, a prophet - Raffaele Constantini (bass-baritone)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Communale di Bologna/Will Crutchfield
rec. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, Italy, 10 August 2012, Rossini Opera Festival
Stage Director: David Livermore
Set designer: Nicholas Bovey
Costume designer: Gianluca Falaschi
Video Director: Daniele Biggiero
Sound formats: dts 5.1. Dolby digital stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Introductory essay and synopsis in English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Japanese, Korean
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1108D [165:00]
Ciro in Babilonia was Rossini’s fifth written opera, and fourth staged. His first operatic work, Demetrio e Polibio (review), a student work, was staged a few months after this. The commission came in a period when composer was writing a series of farse for the Teatro San Moise, Venice. It was the first real opportunity, apart from his student work, for him to treat a more serious subject in conventional style. However, it was not a case of a simple opera seria as the commission for the Teatro Communale in Bologna would fall in the Lent period. The influence of the Catholic Church on the lyric theatre in Italy at the time, and for a period afterwards, restricted the presentation of opera during Lent. This did not prevent wealthy art lovers, including Cardinals and Princes from commissioning lavish musical works for performance in their own palaces. The problem was surmounted in a typically cynical way by requiring the adoption of a Biblical story.
After some difficulties over libretti Rossini settled on a subject, Ciro in Babilonia. The Biblical aspects of the story are clear from its subtitle La Caduta di Baldassare (The Fall of Belshazzar). The story, which has Greek origins, also occurs in Chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Belshazzar, King of Babylon, lusts after Amira, wife of Ciro, King of Persia who he has defeated in battle. In attempting to rescue his wife Ciro is captured and also imprisoned. Belshazzar’s feast is interrupted by thunder, lightning and the appearance of a mysterious message on the wall. The prophet Daniel interprets the words as a sign of God’s wrath and Belshazzar’s astrologers advise him to sacrifice the prisoners and their child. Before the sentence can be carried out news arrives of the defeat of Babylon by the Persians and Ciro becomes King and is acclaimed.
There are many signs in Ciro in Babilonia of works to come from Rossini’s pen, such as echoes of Tancredi, which followed in February 1813 at Venice’s premier theatre, the La Fenice. This work and L’Italiana in Algeri, three months later, set Rossini apart from the proliferation of contemporary competitors and ensured his future as an operatic composer. However, it is foolish to pretend that this work has the musical maturity of those later works. It has many longueurs and needs imaginative staging and bel canto singing of the highest order from at least the three principals.
The production, filmed at Pesaro, was first seen at the Caramoor Festival in July 2012. It was fruit of an intended collaboration between the US bel canto Festival and the Pesaro Rossini Festival (see Opera Magazine, Festivals, 2012 Issue, pp.19-23). Wisely, Will Crutchfield, director of opera at Caramoor, and conductor here, had the benefit of advice from Rossini scholar Philip Gossett. As I note in my review of Demetrio e Polibio referred to above, in recent years the Pesaro productions of rarely performed Rossini works have been plagued by the extremes of producer imagination. This is also true in this production by David Livermore, the director of Demetrio, albeit to a lesser extent. He sets the opera as some kind of silent film show from the 1920s, with the audience later joining the costumed cast on stage at various times. It is nonsensical, but better than modern dress for the biblical story complete with armalite rifles and suicide bombers as seen at Pesaro in recent years. The grainy-filmed act one, this to represent the kind of plague cinemagoers had to tolerate at the flicks, as they were called in those days, is not extended to act two. This and the intrusion of the cinema-goers onto the stage is also generally less intrusive, except perhaps in the scene appearing in CH.16. A big plus to the staging is the photographic images that represent the venues of the various scenes. These are particularly impressive as Ciro’s prison is constructed within the desert (CH.12) before our eyes.
Musically, Will Crutchfield, who also plays the fortepiano for the recitatives, and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Communale di Bologna, have a feel for Rossini’s creation. In this the three principals match them. Michael Spires as Baldassare is a fairly new voice for me although I saw good write-ups when he stepped into the Royal Opera’s La Donna del Lago earlier in 2013 when Colin Lee was indisposed. His tone is appealing and wide in range. Add vocal expressiveness and excellent secure coloratura and he is a welcome addition to the genre of bel canto tenors. Jessica Pratt, Anglo-Australian, not American as the box would have us to believe, sings Amira, Ciro’s imprisoned wife. She is increasingly impressive in Rossini, and other bel canto roles such as Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula from Zurich’s 2012 production (review). I first heard her in the title role of Armida in 2010, the last year Garsington Opera appeared at the eponymous Manor (review). She has the vocal range and purity that is demanded, together with an impressive stage presence in a role that has few histrionic opportunities. The opportunities for such display, allied to vocal tours de forces, come the way of the eponymous Ciro. There are few better exponents of this genre of Rossini trouser roles, and this one in particular, than Ewa Podles. Formidable in her vocal range, she makes more than a cardboard character out of the part with outstanding acting and singing of the role’s solos as well as in the duets and the final scene. Yes, there are occasional lapses of legato, but I struggle to think of anyone else, except perhaps the younger Danielle Barcelona, who could match her. I was disappointed by Mirco Palazzi as Zambri, but very impressed by Robert McPherson as Arbace in particular and Carmen Romeu in the smaller role of Argene who gets the dubious honour of the “aria of one note”.
The sound is excellent whilst the video director favours too many close-ups that in the stage-tinted lighting makes skin tone and detail on faces too prominent. The Opus Arte booklet has an informative introductory essay by Richard Osborne and a synopsis. It also has the usual failings from that company of no chapter listing. The chapter numbers are particularly mean totalling only twenty-seven for the near three hour opera and including the opening and curtain calls. This paucity means that scenes are frequently spread over one Chapter division, even with a descending curtain included.
The opera is performed in the Critical Edition by Daniel Carnini and Ilaria Narici for the Fondazione Rossini.
With excellent singing and fewer than usual of the Pesaro production idiocies to mar enjoyment, this is a welcome addition to the Rossini visual discography.
Robert J Farr