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Monday, July 9, 2012

Opera Review: Hollywood Babilonia

Caramoor presents Rossini's Ciro in Babilonia.
by Paul Pelkonen
Ewa Podles (left) and Jessica Pratt sing a love duet against a digital starfield in Act II of Ciro in Babilonia.
Digital projections by Paolo Cuppo. Photo by Gabe Palacio © 2012 the Caramoor Festival
It is a testament to the industry of Giaochino Rossini that opera companies and festivals are still finding fresh works by the composer to perform. One of the rarest is the Biblical drama Ciro in Babilonia (Cyrus in Babylon) which received its U.S. premiere on Saturday night as part of Bel Canto at Caramoor, the Katonah, NY arts festival's yearly exploration of 19th century Italian repertory.

Ciro retells the story of the conquest of Babylon by the Persian emperor Cyrus II. This is the familiar story taken from the Book of Daniel, with Belshazzar's Feast, the "writing on the wall" and the subsequent downfall of Chaldea and the end of the Babylonian Captivity. Rossini chose the libretto (by Francesco Aventi) as an opera that could be performed during the Lenten season of 1812.

This Old Testament epic was soon eclipsed by the success of Rossini's later works. But that didn't stop the composer from recycling some of the best bits of Ciro into the scores of L'Italiana in Algeri and most noticeably The Barber of Seville. The autograph score is lost, but it proved possible to reconstruct Ciro from a piano rehearsal score. The opera has been recorded twice, and is occasionally revived.

The opportunity to hear this rarity was due to the presence of contralto Ewa Podles in the title role. Ms. Podles is one of the world's leading contraltos, and rarely appears in the New York area. She is now 60, but possesses a magnetic stage presence to go with formidable vocal technique. Her claque was there in loud support. They were rewarded with an impressive, magesterial performance.

However, not even the most loyal opera fan-boys could keep tenor Michael Spyres from stealing the evening. As Baldisare (Belshazzar) Mr. Spyres displayed an astonishing command over his instrument, rising to dizzy heights of hysteria in the banquet scene and plunging down the stave in his depiction of the ruler's despair. Playing the villain of the piece, he nonetheless drew sympathy as a man who had to face the fact that God was, in the end, against him.

Like an old-fashioned Hollywood epic, Rossini's opera throws a love story into the drama of the  the Battle of Opis. In this case, it is Ciro's wife Amira, whose own captivity inside the city walls keeps Cyrus and his army from sacking the city. Soprano Jessica Pratt sang with powerful, warm tone and a glamorous presence that recalled an old-fashioned screen queen.

As the (obligatory) second pair of lovers, Eric Barry and and Sharin Apostolu completed ensembles and made the most of their individual moments in the limelight. Able support came from baritone Scot Bearden as the Persian prince Zambri and bass Karan Karagiozov, who made a sonorous appearance in one scene as the prophet Daniele.

The production (by Davide Livermore) represents the start of a collaboration between Caramoor and the Rossini Festival in Pesaro Italy. Mr. Livermore drew inspiration from the 1916 D.W. Griffith film Intolerance, which also depicts the same events as Rossini's opera. The performance was presented as a silent-film screening, with the choristers in evening wear, slowly drawn into the cinematic action as presented on a large video screen upstage.

The digital visuals (by Paolo Cucco) had more production value than one usually sees at the Venetian Theater, especially an early sequence of hard-charging warriors that looked as if it might have been clipped from Mr. Griffith's film. The overture accompanied an old-fashioned "opening credits," and "dialogue" title cards were used as an (inadequate) substitute for projected super-titles. However, the visual inventiveness of Mr. Cucco was lacking. After three hours, the "digital sets" began to resemble a screen-saver instead of scenery.

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