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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Ciro in Babilonia - drama with chorus in two acts (1812)
Baldassare. King of the Assyrians in Babylon - Riccardo Botta - (ten); Ciro, King of Persia, disguised as an ambassador - Anna Rita Gemmabella (contralto); Amira, wife of Ciro, prisoner of Baldassare - Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade (mezzo); Argene, her confidante - Maria Soulis (mezzo); Zambri, a Babylonian prince - Woitek Gierlach (bass); Arbace, captain of Baldassare's army - Giorgio Trucco (ten); Daniele, a prophet - Giovanni Bellavia (bass-baritone)
ARS Brunensis Chamber Choir
Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra/Antonino Fogliani (conductor; harpsichord)
rec. live, 16, 22, 24 July 2004, Kursaal Bad Wildbad, Germany, Rossini in Wildbad Festival.
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS  8.660203-04 [61.50 + 70.09]



Rossini first began to make an impact as a composer with five one-act farsa for the small Teatro San Moise in Venice. The first of those to be staged was La Cambiale Di Matrimonio, premiered at the theatre on 30 November 1810 when Rossini was 19 years old. It was another year after that premiere before Rossini’s next opera, the two-act farse L’equivico stravagante, was staged at his hometown of Bologna. During this period Rossini earned a sparse living as a coach at the Academia dei Concordi in Bologna and by conducting works of other composers in various theatres. In the carnival season of 1810-11 he had directed from the harpsichord at Ferrara and composed an alternative aria for the star tenor. With his name gaining prominence this introduction to the theatre probably explained his being invited to present an opera during Lent 1812 after the premiere of his second Teatro San Moise farse, L’Inganno Felice. It would be his first real opportunity, apart from a student work, to compose for a more serious subject in conventional style. However, the influence of the Catholic Church on the lyric theatre in Italy restricted the performance of opera during Lent. This did not however prevent wealthy art lovers, including cardinals and princes from commissioning lavish musical works in their own palaces. In the period of Handel and Alessandro Scarlatti the operatic element in the music was evident. This was acceptable so long as the subject matter was biblical and despite the audience being receptive to the sensuality of the often-convoluted plots. After some difficulties over libretti Rossini settled on a subject: Ciro in Babilonia (Cyrus in Babylon). The Biblical aspects of the story are clear from its subtitle La Caduta di Baldassare (The Fall of Belshazzar).
 
The story, which has Greek origins, also occurs in Chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Belshazzar, King of Babylon, lusts after his prisoner Amira, wife of Ciro, King of Persia who he has defeated in battle. In attempting to rescue his wife Ciro is captured and imprisoned. Belshazzar’s feast is interrupted by thunder, lightning and the appearance of a mysterious message on the wall. The prophet Daniel interprets the words as a sign of God’s wrath and Belshazzar’s astrologers advise him to sacrifice the prisoners and their child. Before the sentence can be carried out news arrives of the defeat of Babylon by the Persians and Ciro becomes King and is acclaimed.
 
Although Ciro in Babilonia was announced as a drama with chorus, or oratorio, to facilitate its performance in Lent, it is essentially Rossini’s early attempt at opera seria. As Ferrara had not seen L’Inganno Felice the composer re-used its overture with minor amendments. The celebratory chorus of the Babylonians is appropriately jolly as is that for some of the other serious situations in the work; in this respect it is no different to works by Donizetti or early Verdi. But the music also has its sophisticated moments and the composer did not hesitate to draw on parts of it for inclusion in his mature and orchestrally sophisticated Naples opera seria such as Mose in Egitto, his Lenten work of 1818 and which like Ciro had to have a biblical theme. Rossini had a major difficulty in accommodating the second soprano who was to sing Argene. He later condemned her as being impossibly ugly but also a poor singer. After investigation he discovered that she could sing the B flat above middle C and he wrote the aria Che disprezza gl’infelici (CD 2 tr.13) for her on that single note. 
 
This recording is of the revised edition from manuscripts of the period edited by Urs Schaffer 1984 but in a new version for Rossini in Wildbad by Antonino Fogliani. In listening to the work the variation in sophistication is frequently obvious. It also shows many signs of the works to come such as echoes of Tancredi, which followed in February 1813 at Venice’s premiere theatre, La Fenice. This work and L’Italiana in Algeri, three months later, set Rossini apart from the proliferation of contemporary competitors and ensured his future as an operatic composer. On the rostrum Antonino Fogliani has to wrestle with an audience tendency to clap, albeit politely rather than raucously, after every set-piece. This does not help dramatic continuity; nor does the somewhat underpowered chorus or the voices being set too far back. The picture on the booklet indicates a staged performance. If this was so, the absence of stage noise is welcome. The solo singing is varied.
 
Anna Rita Gemmabella’s Ciro is the pick of the bunch. She sang the minor part of Carlotta in the Naxos recording of Torvaldo e Dorliska also from Bad Wildbad, where I found her singing vocally distinctive. Here, her flexible contralto is heard to good effect with strong characterisation overcoming the stop-start caused by the applause (CD 2 tr.11). As Zambiri, the young bass Woitek Gierlach, a name new to me but who featured on Naxos’s recording of Meyerbeer’s Semiramide from Bad Wildbad, sings strongly and with sonority, albeit with a rather Slavic glottal production. As Baldassare Riccardo Botta sings strongly, having a pleasing mid-voice tone, but he sounds rather tight at the top. Giorgio Trucco is over-parted as Arbace whilst Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade is a little fluttery as Amira.
 
Although I cannot give this readily available version of  Ciro in Babilonia the warm welcome I gave to the Naxos Torvaldo e Dorliska, the performance serves as an introduction to this early Rossini work which has many pointers to his later opera seria. The booklet has an excellent introductory essay, a similarly skilled track-related synopsis and track listing although CD 2 tr. 2 should show the scena as involving Ciro not Tamira who has no part in the opera. For those interested in another recorded performance, my American friend, and bel canto expert Lew Schneider, speaks highly of a 1988 recording from Savona issued on the Agora label in 1998 (AGO79.2) and previously on Akademia (2CDAK 105). This features Ernesto Palacio as Baldassare and Daniela Dessy Ceriani as Amira who, Lew tells me, ‘steals the show’. Conducted by Riccardo Rizzi this is, we think, the only other recording prior to this Naxos issue which may well of course be more readily available.
 
Robert J Farr
 


 


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