Rossini - Ciro in Babilonia
Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2012
Will Crutchfield, Davide Livermore, Ewa Podleś, Jessica Pratt, Michael Spyres, Robert McPherson, Carmen Romen, Mirco Palazzi, Raffaeli Constantini
Opus Arte - Blu-ray
Dressing Rossini's Ciro in Babilonia up as a silent movie sounds like a bit of an arbitrary or frivolous choice, but there's no denying that Davide Livermore's production does at least inject some life into Rossini's otherwise stodgy Biblical drama. I was going to say "inject some colour" into the work, but since the colour scheme here is primarily black-and-white, that doesn't seem appropriate, particularly when all the colour the work needs is already there in the detail of Rossini's writing for the singers, and that hasn't been neglected here either. Singing and staging combined in this way, the impact achieved for this particular Rossini work - one that would unlikely ever be considered as one of the composer's greats - is simply tremendous. This is another coup for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.
More than just being a random concept however, there's some method and perhaps even some playful commentary behind David Livermore's silent cinema concept. The director previously styled Rossini's earliest work Demetrio e Polibio as a backstage recreation of the ghosts of the opera's first performance - which, considering that it had remained in obscurity for centuries since its first performances, was a clever and meaningful touch. By setting Rossini's first religious drama for the Lenten festival in Ferrara in 1812 as a silent Cecil B. De Mille Biblical epic, Livermore is also in a way looking back to a past and making a commentary about the nature of art and performance, and silent cinema perhaps has more in common with opera than you might think.
Ciro in Babilonia is, it has to be said, a terribly old-fashioned work and not one that is likely to stand up well to modernisation. It's not Mosè in Egitto (or indeed Moïse et Pharaon), and it's unlikely to be able to sustain a radical exploration of its concepts by a director like Graham Vick. There's an acknowledgement however here that the work - like silent cinema - has nonetheless a certain charm and a quality in its unique means of expression. The dialogue is far from naturalistic, the treatment of the Biblical story is hardly historically accurate but, like the old-fashioned gestures and expressions of silent-movie actors, the declarations and old-style operatic mannerisms are similarly a now dated means of expression used to reach out and communicate deeper sentiments to an audience. Without resorting to irony then, Davide Livermore's silent movie concept - complete with projections, tramline scratches and even with fortepiano continuo - works on that level.
Delivered on commission, presumably rattled out at speed in the composer's customary manner, Ciro in Babilonia might not seem like a work that is likely to reveal any new depths or facets, but the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro once again prove that even the most minor Rossini works have considerable qualities and individual merits. Ciro in Babilonia doesn't have the gravity of later Rossini in attention to musical expression and characterisation, the all-purpose melodies used here apparently with little consideration for tone of mood and situation and somewhat at odds with the inflated pronouncements of the Biblical declamations, but there is nonetheless a degree of thoughtfulness and sophistication in the writing and in the construction of the work itself. Directing from the fortepiano, Will Crutchfield leads an fine account of the work that shows that the opera indeed has qualities worth examining.
The production then plays fully to the strengths of the subject as well as the nature of Rossini's vibrant and melodic score. The silent movie concept is very clever in the way that it allows the old-fashioned nature of the opera to actually "work". I can't imagine any other way that this could be done that would be half as effective. It's entertaining, it's involving, it's highly entertaining and simply just marvellous to watch. If this were indeed a movie, there'd have to be an Oscar award just for the Costume Design and Make-up alone. The stage concept can however only take this so far, and unless there are real merits in the work itself, it's not going to be enough to hold you for the full three hours. The Pesaro team (and Caramoor from where this production originated) recognise however that the true worth of Ciro in Babilonia lies in the singing performances, and accordingly they bring together a remarkable cast here that individually and collectively deliver one of the most astonishing performances seen at the festival in recent years.
Evidently Rossini tailored his writing to suit specific singers, but more than just to show off their range, the composer clearly took advantage of their abilities to place it in the service of the drama. We can never know how such works sounded in their original performances, but on the very rare occasion when you have singers of sufficient ability, stature and character who understand the nature of bel canto, you get a glimpse of the true quality of a Rossini opera. The cast in this production are, quite frankly, just phenomenal. The role of Ciro, for example, requires the full richness of sound and the range of tessitura that only a true contralto can achieve, and you only realise that when you hear Ewa Podleś sing the role. Her first scene in Act I, 'Ahi! Come il mio dolore, come calmar potrò?' is astonishing in its delivery, performance and technique, but it's the combination of that contralto voice with the other singers that gives the work real depth and range - and Rossini even provides an unaccompanied trio at the end of the prison scene in Act II to show this off.
Ciro is however by no means the only challenging role in the opera, and this production benefits from - and actually needs - exceptionally strong performers in the other roles. Jessica Pratt impressed in the Pesaro production of Adelaide di Borgogna (even if the work itself and the production were a little bit lacking), and she's even more impressive here as Amira. It's a spellbinding performance of extraordinary technical virtuosity, but more than that it's also fully in service of the drama and the nature of the production. Michael Spyres also plays up the silent movie villain role of Baldassare, but has a gorgeous lyrical deep rich tenor that navigates the demands of the role consistently and with wonderful expression. Robert McPherson's Arbace is more in the style of the light Italian lyrical tenor and just glides along here beautifully in a way that perfectly complements the other voices. Mirco Palazzi's solid, deep and resonant bass has been noted before and his Zambri here is just another element that contributes wonderfully to the quality of the production as a whole.
Released on Blu-ray by Opus Arte, the presentation is impeccable. This is what High Definition was made for. The image is clear, detailed and perfectly toned, and the whole performance is well filmed, with quite a lot of tight close-ups. The quality of the PCM and 5.0 Surround audio tracks also contributes to an appreciation of the performance and indeed the music itself. Other than a Cast Gallery there are no extra features on the disc. The enclosed booklet however gives information on the work and the production and also has a full synopsis of the opera. The BD is all-region, full-HD, BD50, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.