Ciro in Babilonia
Pratt, Podleś, Romeu; Spyres, McPherson, Palazzi, Costantini; Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna,
Crutchfield. Opus Arte 1108 D, 185 mins, subtitled
The first collaboration between Will Crutchfield's Bel Canto at Caramoor and the Rossini Festival in Pesaro was 2012's Ciro in Babilonia, a fascinating early (1812) opera by a nineteen-year-old composer both conversant with past models (including opera seria) and already working on the forms that he would soon enough parlay into domination over the European opera world. Thanks to Crutchfield and a strong cast, it's a musical journey well worth taking. As at Caramoor, the high concept "silent movie" staging by Davide Livermore achieves more equivocal results; not without some striking and amusing moments, it too often grows distracting and self-indulgent, making one hope for an audio release of this performance.
Babylon has figured in Western art and literature as a locus classicus of sin and luxurious depravity since the Old Testament, and countless variants of legends exist. Ciro's libretto, by Francesco Aventi, augments the story of Belshazzar's overthrow by Cyrus with a love triangle; the tyrant is in love with and tries to make off with the invading general's captured wife. The dramaturgy is a bit stuffy — though it yields ample opportunities for well-wrought Rossinian solo scenas and ensembles — and one can see why Livermore thought of the aesthetics of D. W. Griffith. However, the film clips (authentic and re-created) and visually chaotic film breaks and streaks on view at Caramoor were complemented at Pesaro by a wearying onstage deployment of extras and choristers playing the staff and audience of a silent-movie house. They invade the stage for the prelude and rarely leave it. The video director compounds the distraction with constant "reaction shots" from these insignificant figures — one striking woman in particular — just when one wants to be concentrating on the principals. The DVD does not make for easy watching.
Musically, though, there is much to recommend in the exhilarating score and its fine execution under the stylistically savvy Crutchfield. The Bolognese chorus and orchestra sound highly prepared and idiomatic. The same three principals preside as at Caramoor. Making her long-awaited, much-applauded Pesaro debut, Ewa Podleś — at sixty — does not look the "young warrior" described on the packaging; but she does make a convincing man and channel the moral dimension of a complex character. Furthermore, her command of Rossinian rhetoric and her strong, agile, tonally distinctive instrument continue to make a great impression. The most throroughly gripping performance is that of tenor Michael Spyres (Baldassare, a.k.a. Belshazzar), as outlandishly crazy as one could wish but sung with beautiful line and astoundingly effective contrasts of register that echo those of Podleś. Statuesque Australian soprano Jessica Pratt combines highly accomplished technical feats (excellent staccatos) and finely honed piano shadings with a rather cold, inexpressive timbre and verbal delivery. Robert McPherson's artful vocalism and Mirco Palazzi's timbre and enunciation score in supporting roles.
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