Ciro in Babilonia is an early work by Rossini composed for the lenten season when only works on biblical/religious themes were permitted. This doesn’t really fit that description. Sure, the story of Belshazzar and the writing on the wall gets a brief look in but it’s almost interpolated in the story, from Herodotus, of Cyrus’ capture, together with wife and child, by Belshazzar. It’s a tale of arrogant kingship, religious faith and marital devotion. Typical opera seria stuff really. It’s a bit thin plot-wise though which probably explains its relegation to obscurity. This first modern production was created at Caramoor, then translated to the Rossini festival at Pesaro, where it was recorded in 2012.
It’s a collaboration between Rossini expert Will Crutchfield, who conducts and plays fortepiano, and Davide Livermore who directs. It frames the piece as a silent movie with considerable interplay between the 1920s costumed audience, cigarette girl etc who form the chorus and the principals, who are costumed in a 1920s film version of Biblical Times. Brilliant set, costume and lighting design (Nicolas Bovey and Gianluca Falaschi) plus interpolated video by D-Wok create a continuous illusion of black and white film throughout. Daniele Biggerio manages the very difficult task of turning this into a coherent video rather well. In fact, it may be the best video capture of a video heavy production that I’ve seen.
The acting is quite stylized, as one might expect, which probably helps the singers focus on the vocal side of things. The music is pretty typical Rossini. It makes lots of demands of the singers, has the odd really affecting moment and a lot of rumtumptytum (a technical term). To pull it off, the singing has to be very good and it is, across the board. Ewa Podleś takes on the title role, Rossini’s longest for a contralto, and she’s excellent. I have not heard nearly enough of her. Visually, she’s not ideal for the role, being about six inches shorter than the soprano, Jessica Pratt, but she manages the complex coloratura and runs with aplomb. Pratt too is very accomplished and stylish and together they are superb. Nello stringerti al mio petto; a duet from early in Act 2 is really lovely. Tenor Michael Spyres sings the bad guy, Baldassare, and he too is a strong and stylish singer who clearly is comfortable with this kind of music. The support roles are all more than adequate. There really aren’t any weak links. The chorus, like the orchestra, from the Teatro Communale di Bologna have a lot to do and do it very well. The basic concept of this production requires really deft execution which it gets. The orchestra seems equally idiomatic and Crutchfield keeps things moving along. He’s also very adept in accompanying the recits on fortepiano.
Both Blu-ray and DVD versions are available. I watched a library copy of the DVD which is perfectly sound technically with clear picture and solid DTS sound. The aesthetic doesn’t really call for utterly brilliant quality so i doubt I was losing anything much by not seeing the Blu-ray. The only extra is a cast gallery and the booklet contains a synopsis and short essay on the work. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
This is pretty much a must see for Rossini lovers or fans of innovative stage treatments. It’s very clever in concept and very well executed. The music isn’t really a masterpiece but it’s not without interest.