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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ciro in Babilonia (1812) [131.59]
Baldassare – Riccardo Botta (tenor)
Ciro – Anna Rita Gemmabella (contralto)
Amira – Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade (mezzo)
Argene – Maria Soulis (mezzo)
Zambri – Wojtek Gierlach (bass)
Arbace – Giorgio Trucco (tenor)
Daniele – Giovanni Bellavia (bass-baritone)
ARS Bunensis Chamber Choir
Wurttemberg Philharmonic Orchestra/Antonino Fogliani
rec. live, 16, 22, 24 July 2004, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany
NAXOS 8.660203-04 [61.50 + 70.09]

Ciro in Babilonia was Rossini’s first serious opera, written when he was just 20 for the Lent season at Ferrara. Previously he had had some success with comic and semi-comic operas, with the one-act farse La cambiale di matrimonio and L’inganno felice written for Venice and the two-act L’equivoco stravagante written for Bologna.
Rossini had previous links with Ferrara, which lead to the commission for Ciro. For the 1809-1810 season, he had directed from the harpsichord Orlandi’s opera Il podesta di Chioggia and written a substitute aria for the tenor, Monelli. This would be when he met the director of Ferrara’s Teatro Communale, Count Aventi. It was Aventi who recommended Rossini for the 1812 commission; Aventi also suggested that the leading role of Ciro (a breeches part) be written for Marietta Marcolini. Rossini had already written the leading role in L’equivoco stravagante for her.
The original, anonymous, libretto was found lacking for reasons that are no longer, discernible. At the last minute Count Aventi took over responsibility for the libretto, though he used the plot outline from the rejected work. Aventi had experience writing cantata texts but this was his first opera. Some of Aventi’s writing seems to have inspired the composer, but the dramatic structure of the piece is somewhat wanting. A more experienced composer might have mitigated these problems, but Rossini was writing his first serious opera.
This means that such potential dramatic coups as the writing on the wall - the opera concerns Belshazzar (Baldassare) and Cyrus (Ciro) - are handled so badly that they fly past almost without notice.
Because the opera was performed in Lent, it had to have a sacred subject, so we have the familiar story of Baldassare (Belshazzar) King of Babylon (Riccardo Botta, tenor) and his defeat by Ciro (Cyrus) King of Persia (Anna Rita Gemmabella, contralto). But this is heavily dressed up with romantic intrigues and plotting relating to Ciro’s wife, Amira (Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade, mezzo), who is Baldassre’s prisoner. She is helped by a captain in Baldassare’s army, Arbace (Giorgio Trucco, tenor) who was born a Persian and is known to Amira’s lady in waiting, Argene (Maria Soulis, mezzo).
The resulting opera seems to have had some popularity and went on to receive further productions both in Italy and abroad. However, Rossini’s memory of the work’s first performance, recounted some twenty years later, was not a happy one. In the CD booklet, Reto Muller speculates that Rossini was getting confused between the reception of Ciro and the performances of Tancredi a year later. It was at this performance of Tancredi that Rossini replaced the original happy ending by the tragic end, a replacement that did not go down very well with the original audience.
But, whatever Rossini ultimately thought of the work, it is undoubtedly true that the inexperience of both librettist and composer is evident. That said, there are some very fine individual moments. Rossini did not create any large-scale, multi-part scenes in the manner of his later works, but there are many individual arias which are worth hearing.
This new recording of the work is taken from live performances at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival. With one notable exception (see below), Rossini’s original performers seem to have been a pretty talented bunch and the resulting piece requires a cast who can handle some seriously virtuoso music.
The cast are by no means ideal, but they handle Rossini’s music very creditably and perform it with considerable dramatic bravura. We might have cavils about individual voices but there is no doubt about their vividly dramatic performances.
Neither tenor is ideal; Riccardo Botta as Baldassare has a bright, rather tight sounding voice and Giorgio Trucco as Arbace has a rather steely top. But both acquit themselves well technically. Wojtek Gierlach as Zambri, a Babylonian Prince, has an attractive, grainy baritone voice.
A curiosity of the female casting is that there is no soprano, instead we have two mezzo-sopranos and one contralto. The heroine Amira is labelled as a soprano role, but Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade copes pretty well with the tessitura. Her voice has quite a fast, tight vibrato - an acquired taste - and she does show some strain in the upper register.  But she delivers Amira’s virtuoso arias with an aplomb that makes up for much.
In the breeches role of Ciro, Anna Rita Gemmabella displays a rich, deep contralto voice. She is an expressive singer, but again displays a significant vibrato.
The original singer of the role of Argene was of very limited ability and Rossini wrote for her an aria on a single note. He subsequently revised this aria for later performances. On this disc, Rossini’s later version is given to the orchestra but the singer performs the one-note version – the result is quite curious and surprisingly successful.
It is a sign of Count Aventi’s lack of interest in the mechanics of the biblical plot that the prophet Daniel gets only one aria, and that happens after the writing on the wall scene has happened. Giovanni Bellavia gives Daniel suitable gravitas in his single aria.
The singers are well supported by the ARS Bunensis Chamber Choir and the Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra. Because of the religious nature of the plot, there is quite a significant choral part and the choir acquit themselves well. Antonino Fogliani directs admirably from the harpsichord, he also prepared the edition used here.
This is neither vintage Rossini nor a vintage performance. But there is sufficient interesting music in strong, bravura performances to make this well worth investigating.
Robert Hugill

Rossini conspectus



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