Cher Public

Conquering Ciro

By the time Rossini was 20, he had produced six operas, most of them brief, comic and slight. He admitted to admiring Mozart (not then well known south of the Alps), but the melodies of his early works show more of the influence of Paisiello. There is, however, already something substantially new and Rossinian about the early operas, and by the time he was twenty-one, in 1813, he had made himself famous all over the kingdom of Italy (that is to say, between Naples and the Alps) with the grand opera Tancredi and the comic L’Italiana in Algeri.  

The kingdom of Italy was abolished the next year, its king, Napoleon, banished to Elba. Rossini did rather better: Il barbiere di Siviglia (to the annoyance of old Paisiello, whose greatest hit was a work of the same name) appeared in 1816, and Rossini was a made man; every other composer hoping for success in Italy was obliged to imitate his style.

Thirteen years later, having composed Guillaume Tell, a far larger and more complex work than anything he’d done so far, the composer, depressed and overworked, quarreling with his wife and with the French government, retired from the composer’s chair, though as an impresario, a founder of conservatories, a mentor and advisor and dabbler, he remained a noteworthy presence for 30 years more.

Some artists know who they are from the first. It is exciting and very Hollywood to watch a composer slowly emerge from promising but not too promising beginnings—it gives us the comfortable feeling that we are wiser than contemporary critics. But Rossini, only in his teens, already understood his gift and how to apply it.

Ciro in Babilonia, composed in 1812 in Ferrara, and given its American premiere last Saturday at the Bel Canto at Caramoor program, is unusual in being derived loosely from the Old Testament, the preferred source for works given at the Lenten season. The O.T. was considered less frivolous than, say, classical myth or Ariosto or Walter Scott, sources of the annual Carnival commissions. (The New Testament was quite out of bounds on the secular stage, but saints’ lives could serve as subjects for oratorios.)

A difficulty arose because the most exciting Biblical incidents—in this case the Writing on the Wall at Belshazzar’s Feast—are quite briefly described in the Bible. (Strauss’s Salome encounters a similar problem.) There isn’t much in the way or melodious dispute, never mind the sex dilemmas basic to opera. Librettists got around this by inventing characters, subplots, invocations.

The resemblance of Ciro in Babilonia to, say, Handel’s Rodelinda is not so much coincidental as generic. Belshazzar becomes a generic villain, ergo one who lusts for his neighbor’s wife, while Cyrus the Great becomes a generic hero and not the highly original figure of history, creator of the world’s first enduring multinational empire. The music for any of these characters could be, and was, moved to other operas, being far more personal to the singers than to the story.

The overture to Ciro had been composed for L’Inganno felice. The climactic trio for Ciro, Baldassare and Amira (the hypotenuse of their triangle) turned up in Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra. The concerted finale to the first act, with murder and massacre threatened and deplored, could easily have come from one of Rossini’s sparkling farces. Ciro does not add a great deal to what we already know of Rossini’s talent; its tale of sacrilege and divine justice is as melodious and merry as any comedy, and therefore it enjoyed a certain peninsular popularity at the proper time of year. The choric gravitas of Mosè in Egitto is not to be found here, though that was written a mere six years later.

Ewa Podles, who sang Cyrus, is a renowned Rossini specialist with one of the most curious voices of the last generation or two, a plummy sound, sexy without distinctly representing either gender, passionate and passionately deployed. Hers is such an idiosyncratic, uneven sound that she has turned off almost as many people as she has thrilled.

Thrill is the word, though: She doesn’t always produce the right sound or the easy one, but she never makes a bland one. Impresarios who like to be able to pigeonhole a singer have not cared for her—or that’s how I interpret the Met’s disdain after her spectacular debut there as Handel’s Rinaldo in 1984. She was covering Marilyn Horne, and the Met didn’t feel it needed another Marilyn Horne.

Podle? is now 60 years old, but her instrument seems in no way inferior to that with which she sang Rossini’s Tancredi in Boston a couple of years back. She takes time to warm up—in the first part of the evening, her best tones were confined to a single octave beyond which pitch and support problems emerged. After the interval, though, her range and power grew.

A duet with Jessica Pratt’s Amira was sheer heaven, similar in character to the Horne-Sutherland duetting of yore, with very different but equally lovely voices. The all but endless double-aria for Ciro which concludes the opera gave us another Podles, the agonized but triumphant philosopher-king whose occasional scattershot top notes were played for dramatic punch. She is a great theatrical figure and knows how to use her weaknesses to effect.

Her opposite number, Belshazzar of Babylon, Baldassare in casual Italian transcription, was sung by the young American tenor Michael Spyres, who is better known outside New York than in it: I first heard him as Raoul in Les Huguenots at Bard, with a voice quite large enough for that killer role (at least in Bard’s moderate-sized opera house) and with a honeyed sweetness that easily lasted all night. Honey often fades with age, though, and last year he did not seem quite so entirely in charge of the higher but less stentorian role of Arnold in Caramoor’s exciting presentation of Guillaume Tell. Nonetheless: a happy occasion and an able performance in a role tenors rightly fear.

I’d never heard the role of Baldassare, of course, but it seemed that two different tenors were performing it: The high, sweet one familiar from Spyres’ previous outtings and, at other moments, a much lower, grittier voice, almost baritonal, as agile as his upper voice and always interesting but not seductive. Was the part written for a tenor of unusually broad range, or did Spyres lower his timbre (and some of the top notes) in order to manage it with an instrument that is still evolving? His acting of the arrogant monarch was dignified and effective, and everything he sang was of interest. The performance was not puzzling; the direction of the career, to this admirer, may be.

British soprano Pratt, who has been singing leading coloratura roles around Europe, made (I think) her American debut as Amira, Ciro’s wife, Baldassare’s captive and latest obsession. Tall, blonde and handsome, Pratt has quite a reputation but I do not find her a finished product. As on several of her recordings, there were wonderful, melting phrases and off-pitch shrieks, elegant ornaments here, fake trills there, adorable harmonies and wince-inducing cries.

Her performance was not without distinction but it was imperfect, the work of an artist who lacks polish. Soft singing is her strength; excitement makes her push and lose control—and most bel canto roles call for vocal excitement. Her renown in such roles as Lucia, Amina and Giulietta may owe more to the lack of first-rate competition than to any standard she can set.

Scott Bearden made an imposing Assyrian courtier, Sharin Apostolou was able if not exceptional as Amira’s confidante, Krassen Karagiozov pleasant as the literate prophet Daniel (surely his explication would be more effective sung by a darker timbre?) and Eric Barry was as incompetent a tenor as he proved a plotter.

Will Crutchfield, founder and leader of the bel canto series at Caramoor, led the St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra in a performance full of melodious charm, with several extraordinary moments in preludes and ritornellos, as well as vigorous accompaniment of the singers. One could wish that his programs would introduce us to less familiar composers of this era, such as Vaccai (Giulietta e Romeo), Mercadante (Virginia; Il Bravo), Pacini (Medea; Carlo di Borgogna), Carafa (Gabriella di Vergy) or Ricci (Luigi Rolla), rather than yet another half-familiar Rossini obscurity, intriguing as it is to behold the ever widening picture. Does he doubt that his loyal Caramoor audience would follow him into such obscure thickets? I believe the varied fare would prove up to standard.

The production of Ciro was more or less staged, a co-production with the annual Rossini Festival in the composer’s birthplace, Pesaro. In practice, this meant great screens were introduced as backdrops (cheaper than painted flats, eh?), and a director, Davide Livermore, and a video designer, Paolo Cucco, had their wicked way with Ciro. Mr. Cucco appears to be one of those designers who cannot believe that music is an activity and therefore accompanies every sound with some visual distraction; this may be necessary for hip-hop videos, it is tedious when the vocalism is appealing in itself.

Cloudscapes barreled past in a way most unlike deserts’ skies of my experience, dungeons built themselves stone by stone before our eyes lest we pay too much attention to the score, and constellations twirled at a rate suggesting imminent doomsday. Clearly video games are more suitable to Mr. Cucco’s art; I hope he will devote his career to that field. So cluttered was the stage with screaming images (including scenes from old silent films), that I was not sure what Mr. Livermore’s contribution actually was: Perhaps it was his idea to knock over chairs at moments of high tension.

On the whole I was glad to do largely without supertitles for a basic and repetitive libretto. But since titles were rare, shouldn’t a synopsis have been included in the program? No one knew this opera and not everyone reads the Bible any more. I was tipped off because almost my first operatic experience was the twelfth-century Play of Daniel, televised from the Cloisters by the New York Pro Musica Antiqua back when Channel 13 was black-and-white only. Same story! Excellent music! Far better sets and direction!

Photos: Gabe Palacio

  • Camille

    Thanks to Cieca Bella for having John Yohalem review the Caramoor Rossini bel canto featival again, the best man for the job, clearly!

    Somewhere on the web there is an interview with Michael Spyres--maybe it was a French website as it was an Interview about the time of La Muette de Portici--and he very specifically described himself as “Barytenor”. That really struck me as who would say that these days? I am very happy to hear he did well as I was worried about him acter Guillaume Tell.

    About Podles--why can’t we have her at the Met?????? La Cieca (although she stole the show) was not enough!!!!!!!!!

    • Nerva Nelli

      “About Podles–why can’t we have her at the Met??????”

      Two words: Jonathan Friend.

      He has claimed for decades the Met has nothing appropriate for her--while sending on Gloria Scalchi as Arsace, Gail Dubinbaum (and for that matter Olga Borodina) as Isabella, Elena Zaremba and that fine Handelian Patricia Bardon as Erda, Denyce Graves as Federica, Liudmila Schemtchuk, Sondra Kelly and Wendy White as Ulrica, etc. etc. etc.

      • Among these, I guess Erda is the real head-scratcher for me. By that time, Podles actually had sung at the house again, had sung the role fairly recently elsewhere, would not need to be made to look young to sing it…well and Bardon was rather anonymous in the role, whereas Podles sounds very much like someone who is likely to rise from the earth to warn of the end of all things.

        Who knows, though. It’s possible she was offered it and didn’t want it.

        • messa di voce

          I don’t think that we can blame Friend for Podles’s rare appearances in ALL the world’s top houses. She’s had a very strange career, but one that seems to be of her own making and that she finds satisfying.

          • Nerva Nelli

            She was not offered Erda. They did make one more offer after the Cieca but it was for the next season and she was already long booked elsewhere. Messa di Voce, the question was about the Met and the answer is Jonathan Friend’s smugness and poor choices.

          • operadent

            I heard Podles as Erda in Seattle in 2005. She was mesmerizing -- truly, it was “the voice of the earth.” At Caramoor, it seemed a bit if the luster of the voice has been lost, but it was still a performance to behold!

          • Nerva, what was she offered for the next season?

          • Nerva, what was she offered for the next season?

          • Camille

            I am gonna second (or third) that request, Nerva Dea Tremenda, what was she offered? How about Giulio Cesare?

          • Nerva Nelli

            Thinking back on it and consulting the Archives: the too-late-to accept offer was not for the next season, but for the Old Countess in 2000-11-- a role that was as I recall initially inked for another appearance by the awesome Felicity Palmer, but in her absence and that of Podles was done with surprising but definite lack of distinction by Dolora Zajick.

      • Enzo Bordello

        During the 1990’s, an acquaintance of mine once asked Jonathan Friend why Mariella Devia did not appear more frequently at the Met. Friend replied: “We have Ruth Ann Swenson for that repertoire.”

      • Camille

        Thank you for the clarification, Nerva.

        Now it makes me glad I hurried to see those two Giocondas, a first for me, i. e., to go to hear “La Gioconda” for the Cieca. Even Borodina stood back when she sang “Voce di donna”, with due respect.

  • CruzSF

    Great review, Mr Yohalem. An excellent mix of background history and addressing the performance at hand.

  • Angelo Saccosta

    Here’s a second to CruzSF’s comment. Great review, John.

  • phoenix

    John, you’ve got to call your lawyer! That jealous old windbag Superconductor has stolen sections of your review for his own blog!

    • atalaya

      More impressively, Superconductor stole from this review and traveled back in time to post his review almost 20 hours before Yohalem’s appeared!!!

      Phoenix, either you’re not-so-obviously joking or are a total idiot.

      In either case, you owe Superconductor an apology.

      • phoenix

        As always, the latter … but dear atalaya, reading how you have taken such an interest in the matter: I hereby bequeath you the Silver Rose -- the carriage is waiting outside with the 6 white horses to whisk you (and the Rose) off to whomever you think deserves the apology -- being the idiot that I am, I am afraid I would deliver it to the wrong Sophie. Cheers!

  • la vociaccia

    Wonderful review, truly fascinating background information, very accurate balanced descriptions of the performers. I agree about Jessica Pratt, her piano singing was lovely and her ornaments were often very well executed, but the voice isn’t all there yet, especially at forte. John will remember her attempt at interpolating some super-high staccati a la Olympia, and it didn’t *quite* pan out the way I think she’d hoped.

    I hope we hear Spyres at the Met soon. I find him infinitely more interesting than the current crop of Rossini tenors. If you aren’t a fan of Podles, you won’t be a fan of Spyres -- he loves to play with registers, but it’s truly, truly thrilling stuff.

  • mrmyster

    La v, if I may, I hope we hear Spyres at Santa Fe soon, and in St Paul, Houston,
    St Louis — and NOT the Met, Chi or SFO. Size is all in enjoying a wonderful
    artist like this tenor, but he must not try to live in these 3000/4000-seat
    halls. Nowadays, we have to add Kansas City to the good-town list with its
    1800-seat opera house in the Kaufmann Center. Seattle’s revised and re-built
    house is of amenable size these days and of good acoustic. Wagner in that sized
    house is a very special treat!
    An artist of Mr Spyres type can have a great career in the usual European
    1500-seat to 2000-seat houses, plus a few American houses as noted above.
    What a shame that NYC, the richest city in the world, does not have a proper
    house for smaller scale opera. It can surely be done, but not without strong
    leadership — and just now most of that talent is looking at the bottom line and
    not the artistic achievement of NYC’s arts organizations.

    • la vociaccia

      Very good point. It would be a tragedy for his voice to become another Met casualty. You are very right that it NYC is in desperate need of a smaller-scale opera theater, it’s too bad Bloomberg is more worried about making sure we don’t drink too much sugary soda. How wonderful it would be to hear Wagner sung in a more modest sized theater, without requiring a foghorn tenor or a shrieking brunnhilde to cut the orchestra.

  • semira mide

    I am looking forward to hearing Ciro in Pesaro this summer, and the review helped wet my appetite.

    I’m glad reviews of the performance have been posted ( Superconductor, NYTimes, etc) but I would like to take issue with one thing this review does that is a disservice to Rossini and understanding his art.
    Admittedly the reviewer passes on “conventional wisdom” -- or make that “conventional assumptions” about why Rossini stopped composing operas after William Tell. I am developing my own thoughts after having read most of the primary sources I can get my hands on -- ok,ok, I’m a fanatic.
    Rossini well understood that the “time was up” for the type of opera he loved and had mastered. William Tell is for me more than anything ” I can do the new stuff, too, but my heart’s not in it” -- what kind of opera should he have written after Tell? Depression? I think that’s a bit of a modern stretch. It is clear that Rossini was quite shaken with Beethoven’s fate, and must have wondered how the most revered musical figure of the time could have been scorned in later years -- Rossini tried valiantly to raise money to help Beethoven -- with no support from his peers.
    Wives? Rossini had the upper hand. He was so fortunate to find in his second wife a woman who adored and understood him, while still doing what he could for his increasingly difficult first wife. The French Government? Hah, he knew how to deal with them.
    No, I think that Rossini was the master of his fate to the extent someone can be, and decided that he wanted to enjoy life and do things he could control.
    OK, that’s a lot of speculation, but passing on “conventional assumptions” doesn’t offer any insight.

    Finally (this is not related to the above) on the matter of Jessica Pratt. Yes, she is English born, but her background is Australian. Does it matter? Only if one is trying to understand what might have formed a singer.
    I am sorry to read that she was not at the top of her game. She was a most impressive Adelaide last summer in Pesaro, and I am looking forward to both her performance in Ciro and her solo recital.

    Sorry, I’ve gone on too long

    • Semira:

      There can be no definitive answer to the question of why Rossini withdrew from opera composition. I certainly agree with you that the new grand opera form (which may be said to have begun the year before with Auber’s La Muette) took more out of him than he cared to give again. In Tell, he certainly proved he could do it — but why bother? Then the monarchy fell and he had some difficulty convincing its successor to honor his pension. The myth has him just giving parties and designing gourmet food for the rest of his life; that is not at all accurate, so the review mentions his work as an impresario and founder of conservatories. (And those who attended his soirees said the food offerings were decidedly skimpy.) (I merely report. He never invited me.)

      No, the world didn’t want more of Rossini’s works at that point, but they weren’t just waiting for Verdi. There are a dozen little-known composers who were quite the rage, several strongly encouraged and advised by Rossini, and I wish we’d explore them more deeply.

      I’ve heard several of Pratt’s recordings and they reveal the same virtues and failings: When she gets excited, she loses control. Her high, loud notes are often ugly. It is not a finished instrument. Her Amira was of a piece. Lovely in parts but never the whole.

      • Indiana Loiterer III

        Then again, Guillaume Tell is not that typical of French grand opera. Anselm Gerhard in his very fine study of French grand opera (THe urbanization of opera (U of Chicago Press, 1998), points out that Rossini deliberately underplays the love element in Tell in favor of a more collective interest in patriotism. He also quotes Rossini recalling his later struggles to find a satisfactory libretto on Jeanne d’Arc; it seems that Rossini couldn’t find a libretto that didn’t cobble together some sort of love interest! So Rossini was zagging while the Zeitgeist zigged.

        • Camille

          And the Zig was definitely UP with the advent in 1831 of Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable”. Maybe that overwhelming success, plus the advent and brief flowering of Bellini’s oeuvre, PLUS Donizetti’s eventual arrival all helped to contribute, too? He had worked very hard through his youth and perhaps needed a rest? His mother died at one critical point--I recall not which year, at this moment.

          All I know is the more I get to know and understand him, the more I love his work and wish he had not retired--for whatever reason--so early. Guillaume Tell should have been just a new beginning for such a creative genius.

          Gee thanks a lot, Indiana Loiterer, for the title of that book. I’ll be sure to get it. Appreciate the mention.

      • grimoaldo

        Rossini worked very very hard in his youth from his teenaged years. He said often that it was his goal to make enough money to “live like a gentleman” ( ie, not have to work) by the time he was forty, and he achieved that.
        It was actually announced in the French press that Guillaume Tell would be Rossini’s last opera, but no one believed it. I cannot give the reference for that as I got rid of all my music reference books but I know I have seen the announcement in the French press.
        It does seem odd to us and to lovers of Rossini’s music it is a shame that he stopped composing operas so young, but that was his explicitly stated goal and he achieved it.

        • mrmyster

          Well, grimoaldo, this is an interesting discussion about Rossini’s exit, etc., but having just been doing some study of Maometto II -- that mid to later period of composition was sometimes not the quality work we are talking about with William Tell or even Ermione. We’ll see what Santa Fe can do with their new version and production of Maometto II, but I am not optimistic about the outcome — and the problem is the score, just endless set pieces, dare I say stock pieces, to fulfill a contract and get a show on the boards. The book is nothing special, nor is the libretto/book of Ermione, but E. has glorious music, memorable ensembles and solo pieces, little of which I find in M. So R. was uneven. OK. When he was good he was really good, and what more can we ask?
          Well, yes, we also have Tornados Rossini!

          • grimoaldo


            Have you been listening to the great recording with Ramey at his spectacular best and, guess who, June Anderson?
            Who knows how many hundreds of times I have heard this recording, love it, love it, love it.
            Beautiful prayer with harp, Giusto ciel in tal periglio, sung by adorata June:

          • I guessing M. Chaslin and Mr. Gossett have not persuaded you otherwise with their video essays on Rossini’s Maometto II which include Chaslin saying it may be precursor to Il Trovatore and how much Rossini loved the piece (per Gossett), along with all the dramatic tension he apparently created with this “extraordinary music” and the superiority of the Naples edition. Per Gossett “It’s a perfect work.” Chaslin thinks its a better work than Guillame Tell as he explains in his documentary that he sent around privately (why, privately, I don’t know).

            Personally I am just looking forward to hear and see Luca Pisaroni. I have a copy of the wonderful production Gossett refers to on video, if you are interested, my dear. I am also looking forward to ANYTHING by David Alden that I will be able to hear and see for myself. I know I will have a good night.

            I hope you are surprised.


          • I have this recording also. It’s lovely as you so well point out. I am for one can’t wait to see this in Santa Fe.

          • derschatzgabber

            Let me add my voice to the pro-Maometto camp. I have enjoyed the Ramey and Anderson recording for years and the San Francisco Opera production with Anderson is one of my favorite memories of a live performance of a bel canto opera. Rossini must have believed in Maometto, since he revised it once as Maometto and then turned it into Le Siege de Corinthe for Paris, where it was finally a hit. Can anyone recommend a good recording of Le Siege? I’ve only heard the Sills recording, and I know that the opera performed as Le Siege on that recordnig is not exactly what Rossini had in mind.

          • phoenix

            ummm -- the similarities between us can sometimes be greater than the differences. Lucky are those going to Santa Fe this summer. Maometto II (original Neopolitan version of 1820) is also my favorite Rossini -- second only to Guillaume Tell, of course; IMO the 2 works cannot be fairly juxtaposed against each other since Tell ushers in a new age of ensemble/orchestral underscoring). I am sympathetic to Chaslin’s autograph score. There aren’t ‘too many set pieces’ in the original 1820 version of Maometto II -- if the work itself were as aria-riddenly monotonous as, let us say, Il viaggio a Reims, it would be a different story, but each aria in the original Maoemetto is a masterpiece all of it’s own (however, take note that I am not a traditional bel canto fan, so perhaps my judgments could fall into the cagtegory of total idiot).
            -- The 1822 Venetian version (with the forced ‘happy-ending’) is a let-down for me because of re-done finale of the opera -- it merely ends with a lame reprise of Tanti affeti from Donna del Lago. IMO Le siège de Corinthe is a better bet than the 1822 Venetian version of Maometto II, but neither of them can equal the monumental greatness of the original 1820 Maometto II.
            -- Since grim has put in his recommendation, On CD, I prefer this version:
            -- My absolute favorite version is an audio broadcast from Concertgebouw Amsterdam Opera Series 12 May 2007 conducted by Roberto Rizzi-Brignoli with Michele Pertusi as Maometto, Hadar Halevy as Calbo and most of all Myrtò Papatanasiu as Anna Erissa, who is so memorable in her final confrontation with Maometto in the great finale of the last act of the opera.

  • manou

    It seems that Ewa Podles is Liberace’s long lost sister.

    • phoenix

      Ah I see! That grande foto of La Podles that heads this thread … I was thinking more along the lines of Morley Meredith in Billy Budd.

  • Camille

    And as far as the suggestion of Mercadante’s “Virginia”, Angela Meade has sung this to at least some degree of satisfaction at the Wexford Festival, a couple seasons back and there are, doubtless, many here that would follow her into a thicket. I, for one, would love to have an opportunity to hear Mercadante, or Pacini’s “Saffo”, which has some fine pages, as well. Another interesting rarity, to me, would be Vaccai’s “Romeo e Giulietta”.

    • Nerva Nelli


      (ya know…)

      • Camille

        Yeah, I know, Nerva--we all do!
        Isn’t she in love with a guy in this version, and a tragic triangle ensues and because of some dumb little vergine? It is so long now since I’ve listened to the recording, but there was one section, a quintet I think, that really struck me. Cannot recall anymore. Maybe I shall go tubing.

      • Camille

        Special delivery for grimoaldo and Nerva, {ya know}~~~~~~