HOME        ABOUT        ARTICLES        OTHER LINKS        CONTACT              

TWOJA MUZA (October) 2012/English

                                                                  CIRO IN BABILONIA

                                                                                                                             by Charles Kellis

        In it's accurate translation from the Italian, "bel canto" means, "beautiful singing". Somehow, however, through the ages, it seems to have also acquired a staple in operatic history that defines it as wide ranging ornamentation, characterized by what is referred to as the bel canto style. Vivid "fioritura" flowed seamlessly  throughout opera-seria from late Baroque through the early Romantic era, interestingly coinciding with Baroque ornamentation in paintings and sculpture-- even flowing over into the sweeping treatment of some ornamental, unusually shaped bushes and trees of that period.

      In all music, ornaments are part of a composer's tools. Even a repeated syllable in a song, or a passing tone in any composition can theoretically be considered an ornament. In the bel-canto era, descriptive ornamental fioritura became the defining characteristic signature of normal compositional activity.

       This kind of singing can be precarious, however, if not skillfully executed. Originally, it was written, acknowledging the unique (no pun intended) abilities of the castrati.  Since, however, castration was outlawed in 1870, any imitations by our modern counter-tenors cannot possibly compare with the castrated  enormous-masculine bodies, bearing huge lung breath capacity, together with very flexible female  vocal chords. Those castrati were even reportedly  able  to compete  with violinists in successfully performing concertos. Their abilities must have been astounding.

      So, now back to earth. Eva Podles Is probably one of our best exponents today of great versatility and power, with the ability to reach from the sonorous depth of her lower register into a resounding coloratura range that defies both gravity and also that old, outdated concept ---"too old to sing". She is a great example of a "somewhat older" contralto who is still the reigning champion of the Rossini belcanto. Her interpretation of the role of CIRO

was passionately characterized by her humanitarian conviction concerning the righteous cause of freedom from captivity, as she, in her own words, even refers to Ciro as "the first author of a civil rights bill of sorts in human history"  Right from the outset with her wonderful rendition of "Ah, come il mio dolor" her virtuosity was in clear evidence.  She not only is able to thrill an audience with her Imposing  huge voice, but is also capable of showing how a musical phrase should be sung --including her mastery of what might be called a successful, express-fully produced legato line. Her signature of characteristically acrobatically rising upward to produce solid, vibratory high notes ---and then just as easily returning again to the glorious beauty of her chest tones, makes her an unusual operatic phenomenon!

      "Ciro in  Babylonia" is one of Rossini's earliest works, composed when he was barely 20 years old. The opera relates a version of the Old Testament story of Ciro's triumph over Baldassare and the Babylonians, including the ultimate reunion of Ciro with his  beloved, previously abducted and imprisoned wife, Armide. The suspicion is --that due to the somewhat uninspired libretto  by Francesco Aventi, the director Davide Livermore decided to use video projections by Paolo Cucco,  These were coordinated with the semi-staged movement of the singers ---cleverly  integrated with on screen depictions, illuminating the story line. The  production itself was a combination of a computer generated pastiche, effectively reincarnating old, silent movies. The supertitles were larger than life, superimposed onto the middle of the action, again channeling the silent movie idea. Instead of translations they acted as characteristically generated announcements.

      Most of this worked very well, as when the intended static of the film produced what seemed like the beginning or the end of an amateur movie reel --- a very clever impact to indicate utter chaos and turmoil in the drama, particularly in the war scenes. Although, at first, the originality of this idea was certainly striking, it was a little overplayed and seemed to be continually trying too hard to say, "Hey! Did you get it?"

      Caramoor is a magnificent setting for any kind of a performance venue.

The grounds are stunning in their lovely, Spanish style structures and their native garden arrangements. For opera, it affords a big enough stage and an ample area to accommodate an orchestra with a huge tent insuring the completion of the opera in case of Inclement weather. At a certain point, I left my seat and went outside to the rear end of the tent. As I suspected, the sound was even more satisfying outside. There is something inhibiting about an outdoor structure attempting to capture the vibratory sounds of the human voice. The acoustics , as in many theaters ---including the Met opera can sometimes vary from one seat to the next or from section to section, but overall it was still a very gratifying experience. As I wandered outside, I ran into the stage director, Davide Livermore, also viewing the action from various angles and positions ---pensively engrossed in evaluating what worked better or not as well in his own production.  I couldn't help  wondering if our respective viewpoints and acoustical impressions were floating anywhere close to similar orbits?

     At one point,, it seemed like a thunder storm was brewing, as a loud thunder clap was heard in the background. Eva Podles, nevertheless, undaunted  by what turned out to be only very loud 4th of July fire-works, rose to the occasion and in her most powerful contralto, single handedly subdued  the noise of the big holiday bang.

      This brings to mind, another performance I witnessed many years ago in Rome, Italy at the outdoor "Caracalla" arena with Giacomo Lauri Volpi, the then reigning tenor with a great high C. He was singing in Donizzetti's "Poliuto" with two live, caged lions on either side of the stage. It was a great spectacle, but when one of the lions started to imitate Volpi, in direct competition, I will never forget the angry threatening looks on Volpi's face, attempting to tame the lion's growl. In this case, I think the lion was the winner.

      Jessica Pratt, the Armide, was impressive with some excellent, technically well modulated pianissimi as she gracefully crescendoed from piano to forte and forte to piano rather effortlessly. Her voice, however, got distinctively shrill on occasion when she over-sang in some of her recitative offerings. Her articulation became a little overbearing when she tried, in vain, to pronounce some of  her Italian words  ---far removed from the Shakespearean Ideal of "trippingly on the tongue". Otherwise, at moments when it was truly focused, her voice sparkled with a lovely quality, including some of her acrobatic coloratura passages that were equally pleasing. When she becomes competent in maintaining all her best attributes and corrects some of her shortcomings, she should be a most formidable singer.

         The tenor Micheal Spyres, as Baldassare, was almost too little --too late. He didn't quite warm up completely until the second act, in his last most impressive aria. Or was it his treatment of that last "mad scene" aria that brought out his best singing? He handled some of the bel-canto fioritura beautifully with fine musicality and as accurately as some of those very difficult florid passages allowed, receiving a well deserved strong ovation, even requiring a curtain call. His lyric tenor, although mostly shining with healthy vibrations in his fine bravura rendition of that most demanding second act aria, still showed some slight complication in the higher notes as he unsuccessfully attempted to unite the transition into the higher stratosphere, reaching  into a rather disjointed falsetto. But here we are talking about singing notes even above a high C.

         Without the available amazing capacity of the castrati, bel-canto opera still manages to march on. It has of necessity created a special technical acuity---engaging a special brand of singer, immersed in the art of the bel-canto style. Some of our most celebrated singers today, although they may excel in their own repertoire, are mostly not prepared or perhaps not even equipped  to sing some of the most demanding roles in the operas of the bel-canto era and safely relegate their efforts to what works better for them and their continued popular appeal.

         The competent contributions of the other cast members, highlighted a good performance from the talented soprano Sharin Apostolou, but the actual hero of the operatic program at  Caramoor is Will Crutchfield, a highly gifted musician, writer and all around musical expert in all facets of any music adventure. Obviously dedicated to the integrity of ornamental correctness, he was great in holding together the complete score, conducting the Orchestra of St.Luke's.---keeping, the singers disciplined with a tight reign as he also played the harpsichord for all the recitatives. Although the thought might have crossed the minds of some patrons that there could have been a little less repetition of the da capo arias, given the two long acts-- this thoroughly captivating music, ushering in the repeats of the A section with mostly well executed roulades and colorful embellishments was well worth a longer, most gratifying operatic experience.