Becoming Rossini

Ciro in Babilonia, which Will Crutchfield conducts at the Caramoor Festival this summer, shows Rossini taking early steps toward the musical dynamo he would become. WILLIAM R. BRAUN listens to the young master's work.

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Conductor Crutchfield at Caramoor
© Gabe Palacio 2012
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Diva Podleś
© Gabe Palacio 2012

If operagoers today know anything at all about Rossini's Ciro in Babilonia, they know one of two things. This very early opera, written a year before Tancredi, boasts an unusual aria in which the entire vocal line consists of repeated iterations of one single note. And Beverly Sills sang a fluffy, inconsequential little piece from Ciro in her Met debut, poached for the occasion into a musicological disaster advertised as Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto, a work that would have been unknown to the composer himself. But Ciro in Babilonia, after many generations of obscurity, is now due for two high-profile revivals this summer. With a new critical edition of the score already in progress, there will be performances at the Caramoor International Music Festival in Katonah, New York, and at the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer's hometown of Pesaro, Italy. Both will be conducted by Will Crutchfield, and both will feature Polish contralto Ewa Podleś, en travesty, in the title role.

In Rossini's day, Ciro was a decent success. After its premiere at Ferrara in 1812 (one of five Rossini operas first heard that year) it made its way to other Italian houses, and eventually to Dresden and Vienna. Viennese audiences couldn't get enough of anything and everything by Rossini — a feverish addiction that culminated in the composer's visit to the city in 1822 — but Ciro was ultimately not among his most popular works. Today it is most interesting for the things it tells us about everyday, bread-and-butter Italian opera at the start of the nineteenth century. The libretto of Ciro in Babilonia, ossia la Caduta di Baldassare (Cyrus in Babylon, or the Fall of Belshazzar) is a good example of the Metastasio-influenced, backward-glancing style of writing that would soon fall out of favor. Long stretches of dry recitative occur at moments that would come to be seen as dramatically unsuitable. The first scene ends in a very long secco recitative for two secondary characters. Most damaging of all to the idea of music drama, in terms of tastes later in the century if not that of the 1810s, is an entire scene of secco recitative, requiring a full scene change, just before the grand finale, in which the main element of the plot is resolved. And Francesco Avanti's poetry in this libretto does not quite capture the eloquence and character of the Metastasian model. Amira, wife of the defeated King Ciro, is held prisoner in the palace of the tyrant Baldassare. "This soul does not know fear," she declaims. "Even looking death in the face, in the face of the enemy king, as long as I live and breathe I will repeat that my heart is Ciro's."

Fine music, of course, can often render a libretto plausible, and here the work becomes more rewarding. Ciro, the heroic contralto role, is not so distinctive as the role of Tancredi, let alone that of Arsace in Rossini's Semiramide. (Semiramide was written a mere eleven years after Ciro, but the prodigiously gifted Rossini wrote twenty-eight other operas in between.) Yet there are moments, especially in Ciro's music, where Rossini shows more than a glimmer of the fireball he was to become. For Crutchfield, already deep into his preparation of the opera when he was interviewed last February, the music has "a wonderful freshness. It's laid out in beautiful proportions, it's got all the rhythmic confidence that the young Rossini famously had. He's an astonishingly self-confident young composer. The young Schubert or the young Verdi or the young Mozart didn't have quite the same command of the same vocabulary and the same gestures that they would keep using in the rest of their lives. If I want to find another composer who as a teenager, as Rossini still was, had that kind of security, I think Mendelssohn is the only one."

The security and confidence are perhaps most in evidence in the second scene of Act II, set in a dark dungeon after Ciro has been imprisoned for an ill-conceived attempt to rescue Amira while disguised as an ambassador. Ciro shows the usual signs of the way busy composers will work their way through a libretto in order, without a grand overall design, but Rossini hits his stride here. A bristling, stormy orchestral introduction in D minor sets the mood with idiomatic use of repeated notes in the strings. Ciro has a highly theatrical accompanied recitative, in which the singer can show off a downward run of almost two octaves. But the scene does not culminate in the sort of brilliant contralto scena Rossini would later provide in Bianca e Falliero and elsewhere. Instead, the first set-piece is a boilerplate duet for husband and wife, singing along in close imitation of the standard writing for a duet of horns. It's lovely enough music, but there is no attempt to differentiate the two characters in ways that Rossini would soon master. The preponderance of simple tonic and dominant harmony, the two most prominent chords in tonal music, becomes overwhelming by this point in the opera. A quick chugging figuration signals the arrival of Baldassare and the change from duet to trio, and an interesting unaccompanied number follows, but in a very disappointing stroke the scene is rounded off with the simple reappearance of the opening figuration. It is now heard in major mode instead of minor, as if the tiny change were enough to depict everything that has happened to the characters.

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Early portrait of Gioachino Rossini by Luigi Riccardi

But the extremely limited harmonic vocabulary is not necessarily a liability. Or at least Crutchfield, who can chide and disagree in the most genial fashion, doesn't think so. "When you think about it, that was one of Rossini's strengths. There was no composer, I think, except possibly Vivaldi, who could get so far without finding even the need for the subdominant." He sings "Mi par d'esser con la testa," the famous opening of the final section of the Act I finale to Il Barbiere di Siviglia. "And that's all it is — just one-five-one. And so is William Tell," he adds, singing the famous allegro vivace theme of the overture. "And he gets such mileage out of stripping the harmony down to its most primitive basics. It's true of Rossini throughout his career."

One is inclined to take his point, because he is careful not to overplay his hand. Asked, perhaps hopefully, whether Ciro has a particular tinta, a unique musical dramatic aura, he demurs. "I think it's hard to speak of a particular tinta in Rossini the way we do in Verdi. I think Rossini was more inclined than Verdi to use the same approach, or a very similar approach, for multiple subjects. That's one reason he could transplant music from one of his operas into another and often did so, and Verdi practically never. The tinta of this one is 'noble forbearance' — the hero has to resist his impulses and cool his jets, and the soprano has to prevent a bad situation with the tyrant who holds the captives from escalating into violence. And so there's lots of noble restraint, and that can provide a strong musical tension. And that was a great theme of Metastasio and the eighteenth-century librettists — the whole idea of powerful, energetic, even hotheaded people learning to control themselves. That was one of the virtues that were being taught by drama."

Crutchfield does not go so far as to suggest that singing an entire aria on one note is part of this steadfastness. The legend of the monotone aria, "Chi disprezza gl'infelici," is that Rossini wrote it for a singer who had only one attractive note, but Crutchfield doesn't automatically buy it. "We have Rossini's late-life anecdote where he tells the story about the seconda donna who had only one good note in her voice. It's not completely clear if that was the whole story. I certainly don't know of any independent evidence one way or another. What I do know is that in other productions of Ciro in Babilonia, in the scores that survive from these other cities the melody is put back into the voice part. And it's pretty straightforward how to do that, because there is an ordinary melody in the violins that would be the logical thing for the voice to sing if it wasn't going to sing the one note. The question is this — is there any real musical or dramatic point to having the aria on the note?" He hints that he may present the alternative version of the aria at some performances. And he also points out that Rossini continued to write monotone pieces in his almost-retired years in Paris, so the idea was more than a passing fancy.

Ultimately, the materials in Ciro can be as appealing as much of the music Rossini wrote later in his career, and the ineffectiveness of some of the numbers stems more from their placement in the drama than from their musical worth. There is a whiz-bang quartet of the type Met audiences recently got to know in Rossini's Armida, but in that opera it serves as the final movement of the heroine's entrance scene. In Ciro it can't quite bear the weight of being the finale of an act. The choral introduction to the grand scene of Baldassare's banquet is the sort of thing that is likely to remind listeners more of the choral music of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro than the big public scenes of Mosè in Egitto. But for Crutchfield that is not the point. "I think there is always something quite exciting about the music with which a young composer hits his stride. For Verdi it would be Nabucco. You don't compare Nabucco to Verdi's Otello, but you do really enjoy it, and it's similar with this opera versus William Tell," Rossini's last opera, which Crutchfield led at Caramoor last summer. "There are ideas he's trying out that keep going through his work all the way up to and including Tell. We have done so many Rossini operas at Caramoor, and this will be the earliest we have done. And it's like we're looking at the sapling that grew into a tree." spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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