Ciro in Babilonia – Rossini Opera Festival

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Second opera at ROF (for me): Ciro in Babilonia, very early Rossini, which is considered the prototype for the following wonderful opera seria. It was a memorable evening. The score does not represent the best Rossini, of course; there is a stiffness, made of arias one after the other, and never-ending recitativi. The baroque and XVIII century paradigms result a bit too heavy, in 1812. But you can hear echoes of the following Rossini, and, to be honest, the conductor Jader Bignamini did fantastic work, with the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale, Bologna. He managed to give some depth, supporting the singers with much more than a passive accompaniment; he brought to light the beauty in the music, which naturally is there, a bit scattered around. One detail: it seems that the singer cast as  the second woman lead, Argene,  was not to Rossini’s liking. He said he didn’t like her voice, and she had only one good note: the central b flat. So Rossini composed an aria for her, just with that one note. A whole aria, sung just repeating the b flat. The incredible thing is that you barely notice, because the underlying orchestral part is so rich in harmonies that it makes the aria enjoyable, nonetheless.

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The production is by David Livermore, from 2012, truly beautiful. Come, ye Central European blockheads, to learn how to produce an opera with an original idea, without completely twisting the plot and distorting the text, and first and foremost without distracting or ruining the music! The plot is (vaguely) based on the Old Testament, it is the story of Ciro, king of Persia, who fights against Belshazzar, king of Babylon (Baldassarre). Livermore’s idea is to adopt the aesthetics of the silent movies, D.W.Griffith’s colossal movies, in particular. So the scenery is made my projected clips of original movies, or clips showing the singers acting in the style of the silent movies. Also the direction of the singers on stage follows the same guidelines: the singers move and gesture in the theatrical, exaggerated way of the old silent movies. The result is extremely convincing. After all, it is just an ironic re-examination of the “park and bark” (as my friend Dehggial calls it) of the old days in opera: singers planting themselves in the middle of the stage, in a theatrical pose, and barking away. The wonderful black and white costumes, by Gianluca Faleschi, complete the effect. The scenery itself was projected on the background, with the scratches typical of old movies. I really liked this production!

The only think I didn’t like about it was the idea to put on stage also the audience of the silent movie: a group of people dressed in the 20s style, watching the “movie” and entering the stage all the time. It was a bit distracting. There was also a reference to The Purple Rose of Cairo, by Woody Allen, with a child who, from the audience, enters into the “movie” as Cambise, Ciro’s son.

The singers

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Ewa Podles

Ewa Podles returns to Pesaro to give life to Ciro, a part she had already sung in 2012. Now, Ewa Podles is a (true) alto, she’s 64 years old (look at her pic): an elderly Polish lady, not so tall, who is given minor roles, in opera, such as la cieca in La Gioconda, la zia Principessa in Suor Angelica, the Marquise de Berkenfield in La fille du regiment. You don’t expect her to take on a Rossini pants role, with all the coloratura and the difficulties it entails. She was AMAZING. The voice has obvious limitations, first and foremost a not so perfect technique: she doesn’t always sing on the breath, so she runs out of it quite often. The passaggio between the central and low registers is far from perfect, of the voice “falls down” abruptly (the passaggio between the central and high registers is, on the contrary, very good). The coloratura, at 64 years of age, is a bit slow, and, given the shortfalls of her technique, sometimes comes out a bit forced. But guys, she has a temperament, a charisma, an interpretation which are absolutely magnificent. She is an extremely intelligent singer, she knows exactly what she can and cannot do, and goes around her voice’s limitations with masterly skill. I was in awe of her intelligence at least as much as of her voice. The result is overwhelming; after her first aria the theatre exploded in a grand ovation, which was not a tribute to her career, but an expression of joy, and probably also of surprise, for a masterful artist. Bravissima Podles!

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Ewa Podles as Ciro

Amira, Ciro’s wife, was Pretty Yende, on her ROF debut. She is extremely good, and she’s getting better. I heard her as Rosina in the barber of Seville in Paris, and I had liked her a lot. Last night she was even better; in my opinion this role suited her voice better. The technique is solid, pure bel canto. She attacks the high and super-high register with careless ease. The coloratura comes from inside, with original and emotional variations. The interpretation is where there is some room for improvement, in my opinion: she’s 31, young for an opera singer. But last night she had some very lyrical and passionate moments; she still doesn’t make me cry, but she’s working on it. Wonderful voice, a rising star, I will follow her closely.

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Ewa Podles and Pretty Yende

The tenor Antonino Siragusa, in the part of Baldassarre, is a great Rossini specialist (once again, how many extremely good Rossini tenors are out there?). He features a disarming ease in the high notes, and he really got a roaring applause in his big aria. The technique is good, the voice is light, a typical haute-contre, really good. The voice doesn’t ring enough, to my taste, it doesn’t sit in the nose, but it gets stuck in the back of the nose, in the soft palate, and it doesn’t resonate as a truly “masked voice” should. Listen to me rambling…. He’s good, he’s really good, I would listen to him again and again.

The others: Isabella Gaudí (Argene, with the one-note aria), Oleg Tsybulko (Zambri), Alessandro Luciano (Arbace) and  Dimitri Pkhaladze (Daniello), gave a very good performance, completing a remarkable cast.

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La scena finale

Further comments on the ROF. The Teatro Rossini is very noisy. It must be the air conditioning system, I’m not sure, but there is an extremely annoying mechanical noise in the background. Luckily it’s not a low frequency noise, or I would have had to leave, so after a while you get used to it, but it’s always there. I find it hard to believe that a theatre who went through major restorations in recent years presents such a huge fault.

A positive thing that I noticed both in Il turco in Italia and in Ciro in Babilonia is that the singers don’t end the arias on the high note (puntatura acuta). This is one of my pet peeves, but you don’t do that in Rossini, you just don’t! It’s bad taste: in the music of that period you can do all the high notes that you want, but then you come down at the end of the aria, and end the aria on a low note. No puntatura acuta in Rossini!! I often complain that even good singers do the puntatura acuta in Rossini, but here at the ROF almost nobody does it (except the tenors. But the tenors are something else, we all know that). I don’t think it’s a coincidence, and I really enjoy it.

And tonight La donna del lago! I can’t wait!

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One comment

  1. I like this production, too. I think it’s on youtube, with Jessica Pratt and Bogdan Mihai. Awesome that you got to hear Podles in Rossini 🙂 My only occasion so far has been La fille du regiment where she was hilarious but I wanted the voice! Good to hear she’s still actually singing.

    I also like your comment about not ending Rossini arias on the high note. I didn’t know it wasn’t good Rossini style, but I always thought it was (unnecessary) showing off.

    Like

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