Italy Rossini, Ciro in Babilonia. Orchestra and men’s voices of the chorus of Teatro Comunale, Bologna. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. 16.08.2012 (JB)
Baldassare (Belshazzar) king of Babylon, Michael Spyres
Ciro (Cyrus) king of Persia, Ewa Podles
Amira, his wife, also pursued in love by Baldassare, Jessica Pratt
Argene, her confidante, Carmen Romeu
Zambri, a Babylonian Prince, Mirco Palazzi
Arbace, Baldassare’s General, born in Persia –Robert McPherson
The prophet Daniello (Daniel) –Raffaele Costantini
Conductor, Will Crutchfield
Director, Davide Livermore
Sets and Lighting, Nicolas Bovey with D-Wok video design
Costumes, Gianluca Falaschi
Chorus master, Lorenzo Fratini
Tilda Swinton used to say that cinema went sharply downhill when actors started to talk. When The Artist arrived in our cinemas last year, everyone understood what she meant. That great man of theatre, Lindsay Kemp, went one step more daring. Prompted by an Italian journalist about his early influences, he was asked about Shakespeare’s plays. Well, he said with a little sigh, they’re all right but there really are too many words.
It’s a pity that Swinton and Kemp were not around to advise Francesco Aventi and Gioacchino Rossini in the genesis of Ciro in Babilonia which premiered in Ferrara exactly two hundred years ago.
Count Aventi was himself Ferrarese and an amateur poet. Rossini had spent a season playing continuo at the Ferrara theatre and with Lent coming up, it was necessary to offer a “religious” subject for the theatre to put on a show. The Lent operas were nearer to oratorios (though with sets and costumes). Biblical texts were mutilated, love situations invented and, when you are lucky, melodrama got another string to its already powerful bow. With Ciro we are not so lucky. What Aventi dished up was something of a dog’s dinner: a rambling extravaganza of insufferable complexities requiring interminable explanations. The explanations come via recitative (both accompanied and Secco ) which put together make up the greater number of the pages of the score. A severe endurance test for both singers and audience. The arias and ensembles feel like oases in this desert. The audience ought to be issued with a health warning: you will need bottles of water and sleeping pills to cross this desert.
Aventi filched the story of Belshazzar’s Feast from the Book of Daniel. This forms the central scene of the second act and Belshazzar’s aria (He’s called Baldassare in Italian). This is one of the oases. Handel had already written his oratorio, Belshazzar, which is made up of the more palatable formula of arias, choruses and orchestral interludes joined together by brief recitatives. Or just remember how in 1931, William Walton wrote his acclaimed oratorio, Belshazzar’s Feast, which remains the most popular choral work of the twentieth century in the UK. But Sir William had the good fortune to have his friend, Sir Osbert Sitwell, to –not even write a libretto- but to select a few pertinent, well-chosen lines from the Books of Daniel and the Psalms. No such luck for Rossini, who ended up with a rambling, verbose bore. Words, bloody words! Oh, Lindsay Kemp! thou should’st have been living at this hour.
The autograph score of Ciro has been lost. In preparing the new edition for the Fondazione Rossini, Daniele Carnini and Ilaria Narici have cobbled together material from early performances, some of which, they tell us, have the composer’s markings. But they have proceeded with the guiding principle of the musicologist of being all-inclusive. That may make musicological sense, but it doesn’t make musical sense; least of all, does it make for a worthy performing edition. I venture to suggest that if Rossini could have had any say today, the greater part of those recitatives would have been deposited in the waste bin.
And before you suggest speeding them up, let me say right away that this matter had been attended to insofar as it could be, for the opera was perfectly paced from Will Crutchfield’s baton, who also sensitively provided the harpsichord continuo.
Davide Livermore made a strong bid to save the show. Against overwhelming odds, he almost succeeded, and would have done so if the powers that be had better heeded his imaginative advice. He had indeed noted Tilda Swinton’s observations. He had the ingenious idea of setting the production as a silent movie show. The men-only chorus, had some women models among them, all these appearing in smart Edwardian dress, first as participants of a silent movie audience, then as participants in the opera. Captions flashed onto a big screen, alla pre-talkie movies, updating us on the action. That made the dreary recitatives redundant; they served no purpose. But some misguided musicologist, who could not possibly have been a musician, decided to retain them. Suffering was reinstated even after Livermore showed the way out. His team was hugely aided by Nicolas Bovey’s sets and lighting and D-Wok video design, with Gianluca Falaschi’s costumes and all of these in appropriate black and white.
The Polish contralto, Ewa Podles, made a great impression in the title role. (We call the Persian king, Cyrus in English.) Graciously overlooking Aventi’s total disregard for historical and biblical accuracy, she says in a programme note which is not without some unintentional comedy:
At the time of his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus was already a mature man, who very much like myself, had already lived for more than half a century. That is the reason why I have decided to work on this part without any inhibitions or second thoughts; it is quite natural for a mature singer to present a mature hero, rather than, for instance, for a fifty-year old soprano to sing a fifteen-year old Cio-Cio San.
I am fully aware of the historic legacy of the hero. I cannot imagine him to be dreamy and lyrical. Judging by his actions, he was strong, energetic, determined, but also deeply thoughtful and emotional. This is how I will attempt to portray him.
And so you did, Ewa Podles. So you did. And the Pesaro audience loved you for it. Me too. Only a contralto of your dimensions could sound to profoundly passionate, determined and meaningful, all in the same breath. Given more time, your amazing voice might have sounded entirely comfortable with the impossible coloratura demands which the composer makes. Even these passages worked, though they sounded as though they had been grafted onto your remarkable voice and not yet been given enough time to become part of it.
Jessica Pratt was equally applauded as Ciro’s wife, Amira (so named by Aventi as a convenient rhyming word in his daft plot). But I only wish that Miss Pratt would remember that she has a beautiful voice all of the time and not just those notes where Maestro Crutchfied graciously allows her to soar and pause. She has developed an unfortunate tendency to snatch at some of the fioratura rather than singing it. In such passages her voice is ugly. With a bit more of the right kind of study, I feel they could be avoided.
Michael Spyres sounded fine as Baldassare though some more dramatic colours would not have come amiss in the scene of the Feast. Robert McPherson as Arbace, the Babylonian born in Persia, secretly in love with Amira’s confidante, Argene, brought the house down with his inspiring performance of his Act One aria-Opra la tua vendetta, but he was less convincing in the second act trio .Nello stringerti al mio petto. Even Argene, the confidante, gets an aria near the opera’s end –Chi disprezza gl’infelice but this was rather lost on Carmen Romeu’s somewhat routine performance. The prophet Daniel (Daniello in Italian) makes a single appearance for a single aria at the Feast –De’ nemici le spade, le faci.And Raffaele Costantini was an appropriately imposing figure in the role.
The men’s voices of the Bologna Teatro Comunale were meticulously rhythmical and expressive throughout and moved with the elegance and precision of the glamorous young women models that Mr Livermore had so thoughtfully placed amongst them. Another of the Director’s inspired ideas. If the ROF ever decide to revive this production it should be with Davide Livermore calling the shots. It would cut half an hour minimum off the performance time and rid us of the grotesque recitatives. Then it would work as an entertainment, which is always Rossini’s first requirement.