Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at Caramoor, with Ewa Podleś, Jessica Pratt, and Michael Spyres; Will Crutchfield conducting

Ciro in Babilonia by Rossini in front of digital projections at Bel Canto at Caramoor

Ciro in Babilonia by Rossini in front of digital projections at Bel Canto at Caramoor

Ciro in Babilonia
Gioachino Rossini. music
Francesco Aventi, libretto

Bel Canto at Caramoor
Saturday, 8.30pm ~ Venetian Theater

Ewa Podleś, contralto
Jessica Pratt, soprano
Michael Spyres, tenor;
Scott Bearden, baritone
Sharin Apostolou, soprano
Eric Barry, tenor
Krassen Karagiozov, baritone

Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Will Crutchfield, conductor and Director of Opera
Davide Livermore, stage director and video projections designer
Cori Ellison, guest lecturer

This production is in collaboration with the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy.

To read Will Crutchfield’s defense of the use of intertitles and Davide Livermore production, click here.

I was introduced to Rossini at a very early age—I can’t remember when—through some Met performance of the Barbiere, well before the the scholarly edition which finally made musical and comedic sense out of it. That was enough to keep me away from Rossini for years. Later on, a friend who was avidly buying up the recordings of the lesser-known operas as they appeared in the 1970’s (of which William Tell was one) infected me with his enthusiasm, but it petered out after a while. Even though I had seen good productions of the Barbiere and L’Italiana in Algeri along the way, it has really been the Bel Canto at Caramoor performances which have effected my conversion into an enthusiast. I could easily imagine a happy August spent oscillating between Pesaro and Bayreuth.

No recording can equal the effect of a live performance, even if—perhaps especially if—it isn’t fully staged, or staged at all. This is true, above all, if one is being introduced to the opera for the first time. After that, recordings are extremely helpful in deepening one’s acquaintance. But the point is that, once one has come under Rossini’s spell, it is almost as exciting to discover one of his obscure partial successes as it is to become better acquainted with his masterpieces, as we did last year at Caramoor with William Tell. No one would pretend that Ciro in Babilonia, his fifth opera, which he composed when he was barely twenty for the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, to mixed success, is a masterpiece, but it is fascinating and gripping nonetheless, for largely the same reasons proposed by Will Crutchfield in the program notes, its concept and libretto belong essentially to the eighteenth century, while the young Rossini was pushing it along into the nascent sensibility of his own time.

The concert (or “semi-staged,” if you prefer) performances at Caramoor are a treasure, as one of the few venues in America where one can hear bel canto opera correctly sung in a context which attempts to recreate the text and performance of bel canto opera in a practical balance of scholarship and showmanship. Bel Canto at Caramoor is a delight for audiences and singers alike, because, as Vivica Genaux, who has sung there several times, said, “at Caramoor it’s all about the music.” It’s not some eccentricity of a more than usually serious singer that the music comes first. I’d venture to say that the music tells us almost everything we need to know about opera, especially in Rossini, who first developed his technique by working with singers. What we discover through research into performance practice cannot literally enable us to recreate the exact sound of the original performance, much less its effect on its audience. However, the music of a particular, bygone period makes no sense at all, unless certain basics of the original performance practices are followed. What you hear at Caramoor today shows progress from the early efforts of Callas, Sutherland, and Sills and the musicians who worked with them. What Will Crutchfield has achieved gives us, as the audience, a viable grounding in the technique and style of Bel Canto. Above all, this music has to be sung with the whole voice. The singers must be able to integrate their lower registers with their head tones in such a way that the line can be spun seamlessly, melody and ornament together. The kind of Verdian treatment—or treatment based on twentieth-century concepts of Verdi—of this repertoire one hears at the Met today just won’t do.

After hearing Bel Canto Opera sung properly it is hard to listen to it sung that way. Rossinian drama can come to life with the voice as the expressive medium, with the singer pouring expression into melody and ornament in such a way as to engage, excite, and move us. In a recent production of Rossini’s Armida at the Met, Renée Fleming’s finessing of the details of her line on what, let us hope, was an “off” evening, an unengaged cast, lackluster conducting, and an elaborate but condescending production directed by Mary Zimmerman with precious stage design by Richard Hudson all contributed to an exceedingly boring night at the opera. If an over-hyped star and a trendy production were the primary motors of the Rossini renaissance, it would have gone nowhere. The Bel Canto at Caramoor productions combine the spirit of historically informed performance practice (the Orchestra of St. Luke’s play modern instruments) with the ability to put on a good show (no sets, but a hint of costuming and a lot of vivid acting) to bring Rossini to life for us.

This year, the circumstances of a co-production with the Rossini Opera Festival of Pesaro brought something new: a set, of sorts, and something closer to a fully-staged production. Musically, this performance of Ciro in Babilonia was little different from past productions, although the stage business—still a work in progress—compromised musical detail to some degree, and the placement of the orchestra on the ground in front of the stage led to a thinner sound than usual. Perhaps the string sections were smaller. The chorus, which had the stage to itself, also sounded thinner and weaker in the lower registers. Otherwise the chorus sang and acted with spirit and the orchestra played with commitment and energy. The wind obbligati—horn, bassoon, etc.—were played with particular style and expression. There could be not doubt that the Orchestra of St. Luke’s was a superb ensemble and that Maestro Crutchfield mastered the score with complete comprehension and energetic commitment.

Three outstanding soloists carried the performance: soprano Jessica Pratt brought  to Amira a strong vocal presence and a masterful precision in her execution of the florid passages. Michael Spyres gave a marvellously nuanced and fascinating characterization of Baldassare with his strong, flexible tenor voice and his ability to shape his line with elegance and expression. Above all the great Polish contralto, Ewa Podleś, was on hand to give us a deeply studied and forcefully characterized Ciro, all magnificently sung. The acoustics of the tent at the Venetian Theater could perhaps not do full justice to the resonance of her voice. In some cases, in fact, she was positioned towards the back of the stage, perhaps a device to reduce her voice to the scale of the others. The program contained Madame Podleś’ statement about her interpretation of Ciro as a mature military leader of singular experience and decisiveness. This is at variance with the views Mr. Crutchfield and the stage director, Davide Livermore, expressed in their pre-performance talks, based on the lyricism, even dreaminess of some of Ciro’s music, as well as the enforced passivity of his situation, since both he and his loved ones are prisoners. In any case, Madame Podleś sang with an authority, extraordinary beauty of tone, and a complete grasp of period style and characterization on stage, that make her rather rare appearances unforgettable. She is the only living singer I know who is endowed with a voice possessing the almost superhuman size and richness we know from recordings of Kirsten Flagstad and Kathleen Ferrier.

The secondary roles were more than ably filled by Sharin Apostolou (Argene), Scott Bearden (Zambri), Eric Barry (Arbace), and Krassen Karagiozov (Daniello). All sang impressively in excellent bel canto style, especially Eric Berry, whose performance was only compromised by a certain stiffness and inflexibility in tempo. At first I thought Crutchfield was to blame, but, consummate pit conductor that he is, he gave the other singers a great deal of elasticity, and they took full advantage of it. Of course, Barry’s character, as an army captain, is by nature rigid.

The libretto by Francesco Aventi, a noble amateur, according to Mr. Crutchfield’s note, created a story of a noble king pitted against a vile one, who under the circumstances possesses greater power. As Crutchfield and Livermore explained, Ciro, as admirable as he is, accomplishes nothing in the story. At the end, he is “saved by the cavalry,” i.e. the arrival of the Medes under their king, Darius. The narrative is based on the Old Testament story of the depraved Belshazzar who commits an outrage by using the treasures captured from the Temple of Jerusalem at his feast in honor of his own barbarous god. A hand appears and writes in flaming letters on the wall the famous words, “Mene, mene tekel, upharsim,” which the Jewish prisoner, Daniel, eventually interprets to mean that Belshazzar will lose his kingdom to two enemies, the Persian King, Cyrus, and the King of the Medes, Darius. In this Lenten biblical story, it is God who acts, not his instruments. Hence, Ciro’s situation is perfectly matched to the meaning of the story. In order to stress this, and to create the love interest, Aventi introduced Ciro’s wife, Amira, and his son, Cambise (a historical figure), who have been taken prisoner by Belshazzar, who lusts after Amira and wishes to make her one of his wives. At the beginning of the opera, Ciro is about to besiege Babylon, but he is tortured by the thought that this will mean the death of his family. He is advised to disguise himself as an ambassador, thereby to gain admittance to the city and Baldassare’s palace, in order to work a bloodless victory from within. In this way he becomes Baldassare’s prisoner and arrives at the point of execution. Just before this, close to the end of the opera, we see the two pitted against each other, and, although there is no hope for Ciro at this point, Baldassare seems pathetically out of his depth in opposition to the noble Ciro, so imposingly portrayed by Madame Podleś. After the invasion of Darius, the opera concludes with the triumph of  Ciro and Amira’s mature conjugal love and their devotion to their son and heir, Cambise. As in William Tell the family triumphs, as the natural order, in this case divine, overcomes evil.

Aventi’s libretto is no masterpiece, and the nineteen-year-old Rossini was unable to overcome its awkwardnesses and the moments where the plot seems to stall. I’d have a better comprehension of how that played out, if I had not been distracted by Davide Livermore’s hyperactive production. Designed in fact for the fully-equipped theater at Pesaro, still incomplete in early July, and most likely compromised by budgetary limitations, Livermore’s production, with its digital projections by Paolo Cucco, amounts to nothing more than a corbelleria, although one created by obviously gifted artists who are well-versed in the conventions of neo-classical theater. It wasn’t all bad by any means, but it detracted most annoyingly from the opera. Signor Livermore is a charming man, a professional tenor of some accomplishment, who therefore comes from the right side of the production world, and I can understand how Mr. Crutchfield was seduced into going along with this.

Livermore began with the false premise that the operatic theater of 1812 needed to be translated into modern conventions in order to communicate with his audiences. In order to achieve this he chose to present it as a silent film, with projected digital backdrops which cleverly combined the neoclassical design of the time with the set design of Pastrone and Griffith. This in itself was inoffensive, but he combined it with two clichés of the worst kind, fake digitally-created spots and scratches to suggest an old film (there are always way too many of them, and did Cabiria and Intolerance look like that at their first screenings? Of course not!), and constantly moving clouds, intended to suggest the course of history, or fate, or whatever. (This gimmick appeared recently in the Bridge Project production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in a slicker form.) You can find more impressive time-lapse images of clouds all over Vimeo and You Tube. In the first place, I should think that the Rossinians who take the trouble to travel to Pesaro are more sophisticated than this. A recent popular film in the style of silent cinema has shown that contemporary audiences know just about as much about the aesthetics of silent film as they do about stage production in the early nineteenth century. In the second place, the rushing clouds were distracting almost to the point of giving one a headache, jarring with the flow of the music and the drama.1

On the positive side, Livermore helped his cast achieve some exceptional performances, for example Spyres and Apostolou. Mme. Podleś, as usual, followed her own lights with gratifying results. In its own rather more intelligent way the production ran the risk of condescending to Rossini like Mary Zimmerman’s Armida and La Sonnambula. An example is the precious scene-change in which Ciro’s prison cell constructs itself from jumping stone blocks like the walls of Thebes. The silent-film-style intertitles describe the prison as subterranean, but the set provides a skylight and a window with a fine desert view. One might think Ciro was weekending at Palm Springs. In any case, the prison scene is important and serious. Laugh-inducing effects are out-of-place before

The intertitles, by the way, were intended as an alternative to supertitles, of which Mr. Crutchfield disapproves. I agree. Let’s go back to synopses and libretti.

An intelligent experiment is worth trying in many cases, but to present an unfinished, disruptive piece of Regietheater to a paying audience at a venue which is widely revered as a haven from such hijinks is inexcusable. It is equally culpable to engage a great artist like Ewa Podleś and to make her appear in a production that undercut her performance with distracting clichés, and an unfinished one at that. The Boston Opera Tancredi was bad enough, but it at least was free of headache-inducing visuals.

I’ll keep my eye on the Italian press next month in the hopes of some wicked amusement from the land of Collodi.

  1. There is a fundamental problem with digital animation in opera, and I don’t understand why producer’s don’t get it. The moving clouds, water, flashing lights, etc. eventually repeat themselves, because there is a limit to how many moving pixels an opera company—as opposed to Walt Disney—can pay for. In the far more sophisticated light effects created by Toneelhuis Antwerp for La Scala’s production of Die Walküre, the same repetitious flow appeared, jarring with the music, because it had no relation to its pulse, rhythm, and shape, and jarring with the action, because the action was not repeating itself: it was moving forward towards its tragic end. The most successful implementation of this in my experience were the projections in Tankred Dorst’s Ring at Bayreuth. The images were reasonably well coordinated with the music, and the scene—Alberich’s altercation with the Rhinemaidens—was not so long that the repetitions became obvious.
Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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