On the evening of Saturday, July 7th, Caramoor, the world famous outdoor summer music festival presented the American Premiere of the unknown Rossini opera, Ciro in Babilonia. The performance was a (classical music journalism) star studded event with press from multiple opera publications there. For a journalist like me, it was a dream come true!
The opera, detailing and dramatizing the capture and conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the great, was Caramoor’s first venture into staged productions, but we’ll get to that later.
This opera represents a pivotal moment in Rossini’s composing history – only 20 when he wrote it, the opera marks the beginning of bel canto. It’s easy to hear how heavily the overture is influenced by Mozart, but as the opera continues, we hear the mature Rossini we’ve come to love with all of his high notes, coloratura, and stacatti. William Crutchfield conducted the St. Luke’s Orchestra (in perfect form) with all the passion and life owed to this wonderful score.
While the opera Ciro may be a tedious one, with two or three arias for Ciro in the final scenes of the opera, the stellar cast and orchestra make it even more remarkable.
The work starred world famous contralto Ewa Podles as Ciro, the great military leader. It was clear from her first moments on stage that Podles mastered both the music of Ciro and the character of him as well. Podles received a huge ovation when she first walked onstage and sang to perfection, with her voice soaring easily above the chorus in ensemble scenes.
The role of Ciro is one written for a contralto with a huge range and this was the opportunity for Podles to display what a massive range she has(low A2 up to soprano high D). Even at 60, Podles gave a superior performance that the audience loved. She also demonstrated perfect diction and a beauty of tone. At her first entrance, the audience applauded and at the end of her first aria, there was so much applause she broke character to take a bow. These assets help make Podles such a vocal marvel.
The role of Baldassare(Belshazzar) the evil king was played TO PERFECTION by tenor Michael Spyres. He maneuvered the EXTREMELY difficult mad scene containing multiple High C’s among other legendary high notes. He received the biggest solo ovation of the night for his performance. Jessica Pratt played Ciro’s rather stupid wife Amira. The role of Amira also contains difficult music with intense coloratura. Pratt handled the coloratura with ease negotiating runs and high notes to perfection. Notably, she mastered pianissimi on high notes, a skill she seemed eager to show off.
Among the ensemble, the standout was by far soprano Sharin Apostolou, singing Amira’s handmaid Argene. Apostolou demonstrated perfect technique both vocally and acting wise throughout the entire performance. She sang the opera’s most famous aria “Che Disprezza Gli Infelici”beautifully. She was a pure joy to listen to.
Here is another singer; Sophie Daneman, singing the aria, but not as well as Apostolou:
Also amongst the ensemble was Eric Barry, who provided a pleasant and sweet voiced tenor as Arbace-one of Baldassare’s henchmen-opposite Argene in a romantic sub-plot. Scott Bearden sang Zambri, a right hand man to Baldassare with an impassioned and lyrical baritone. Most disappointing amongst the cast was most certainly baritone Krassen Karagiosov singing the prophet Daniel who interprets the “Writing on the Wall”. His plain and passionless was a stark contrast to the emotional intensity of the other artists on the stage.
Caramoor’s past opera series have been concert performances with the singers in costume but no scenery or staging, but Ciro was their first venture into staged operas. The production, directed by Davide Livermore, was set before a large video screen where pictures and videos appeared, meant to give the impression that the people onstage were in a silent movie.
Sometimes, the screen provided a compelling backdrop to the drama, like in the first act finale when the screen went totally white, turning the people onstage into silhouettes as the drama of taking Ciro to prison transpired. It showed the drama in a very plain and unadulterated drama. However, more often than not, these highly distracting videos seemed to cheapen the drama on stage. In one instance, fake blood dripped down on the screen, creating a low-budget horror movie effect that seemed out of place and disappointing.
Ciro hasn’t been performed since the 1800’s at the premiere and subsequent Eurpoean revivals a year or two after, so there was no synopsis in the program. The director opted to flash bits of the text on the screen as well of short sentences explaining what was happening. This was perplexing because long stretches of seemingly important dialogue would pass before there was an explanation of what had just transpired, and sometimes, no recap was provided, at all. I wish there had been a synopses or something to follow on with in the program. The public isn’t so aware of Ciro in Babilonia but it’s a known fact that the libretto by Francesco Aventi was notably one of the weaker ones Rossini composed for. Instead of making the best of the libretto, Caramoor publicized the fact that the libretto was terrible, so they almost entirely excluded it from the performance. I understand it was hard to work with, but it felt bewildering to almost remove it entirely from the production.
Caramoor published a statement about how the production may have had its disappointments here.(Caramoor is actually on Tumblr. Pretty hip, don’t you think?)
At the end, the director and video designer (Paulo Cucco) received some hearty “boos” (unusual for American audiences. There were even shouts of “Bring out the director!”. But if the production was the only thing that marred the evening, then that’s just a testimony to how spectacular this performance was.
This production is to travel to Pesaro for the Rossini festival in August with the same lead cast.
On Saturday, July 21st, Caramoor will present another opera, I Capuletti e Montecchi by Bellini. It will be followed by a host of wonderful performances throughout the summer that make us lucky to live so close to this incredible cultural resource! For information and tickets, visit http://www.caramoor.org/