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ClassicsOnline Home » ROSSINI: Ciro in Babilonia
A story of love, marital fidelity, the defeat of a tyrant (the Babylonian King Belshazzar)
and the triumph of the good, Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia is a bold fusion of biblical and
secular subjects set to brilliant, thrilling music. Although intended to be staged during
Lent, Ciro includes all the time-honoured ingredients of serious opera such as the test of
love, military scenes, the help of a turncoat, disguise, prison scenes, a funeral march and a sudden happy ending.
By Gwynn Roberts
This Naxos double CD of the oratorio-opera was released in February this year, and features the rising young Italian singers Riccardo Notta as Belshazzar and Anna Rita Gemmabella in the breeches role of Cyrus. All the soloists handle the delightful tunes provided by the youthful Rossini with high competence and professionalism…The work was recorded live at the Rossini in wildbad Festival held in Bad Wildbad, Germany, in 2004, in consideration of which there is remarkably little audience noise, apart from the applause after each aria. Of particular interest is the aria Chi disprezza gl’infelici, all sung on just one note, which Rossini wrote for a mezzo whose voice he considered was ‘beneath contempt’, but who had one single note, the B flat above middle C, that didn’t sound too bad!
There’s a felicitous intimacy about this recording, helped by Rossini’s ever-present melodic invention, which adequately compensates for Aventi’s dramatically impoverished libretto.
By David Denton
Even as a young man the potential for commercial success was uppermost in
Rossini's mind, and the fact that Italian theatres were closed in Lent offered
the ambitious composer the potential of writing a work that would be religiously
acceptable at the closure period. The result was Ciro in Babilonia, the
first of his to two Lent operas (the other being Mose in Egitto). The
story surrounds the Babylonian King Belshazzar who has abducted Amira the wife
of the Persian King Cyrus. He falls in love with her, but discovers her with
an ambassador from Persia - who is Cyrus in disguise - and flies into a rage.
Condemned to death, husband and wife are saved with the unexpected victory of
the Persian army. Rossini was only 20 when the work was completed, and though
its success was initially promising it failed to stay in the repertoire. It
did, however, point to a major new opera composer, the second act duo for Ciro
and Amira one of the work's highlights. Not unusual at the time, both roles
were given to females, and though the opera is unusual in having no soprano,
Amira offers the high end as a coloratura mezzo required to perform vocal acrobatics.
That Rossini was to write comic operas at times surfaces, the orchestral introduction
to the second act being distinctly lightweight. A well shaped opera, with a
nice mix of arias, a happy conclusion not quite producing the required big ending.
Derived from three stage performances at the annual 'Rossini in Wildbad Festival',
the recording is the best I have heard from this source. Anna Rita Gemmabella
is a fruity Ciro, the powerful lower end of her contralto voice of adequate
weight and perfectly complements Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade's silvery mezzo. Riccardo
Botta does his best with the wicked King Baldassare, but it is a taxing tenor
role that does not always fall easily on the voice. I was much taken by the
big bass voice of Wojtek Gierlach in the supporting role as a Babylonian prince,
Zambri. The programme notes tell me that this recording takes us back to something
near the original - Rossini made several adaptations - the conductor, Antonino
Fogliani, responsible for the preparation of this performing version. Good orchestral
support and homespun chorus in a nicely balanced recording with a minimum of
stage noises, and at this super bargain price a release no Rossini fan will
want to miss.
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Ciro in Babilonia
ossia La Caduta di Baldassare
(Cyrus in Babylon or The Fall of Belshazzar)
Dramma con cori in due atti • Libretto: Francesco Aventi
Revised edition from manuscripts of the period by Urs Schaffer 1984, new version for 'Rossini in Wildbad' by Antonino Fogliani
Baldassare, King of the Assyrians in Babylon - Riccardo Botta, Tenor
Ciro, King of Persia, disguised as an ambassador - Anna Rita Gemmabella, Contralto
Amira, wife of Ciro, prisoner of Baldassare - Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade, Mezzo-soprano
Argene, her confidante - Maria Soulis, Mezzo-soprano
Zambri, a Babylonian prince - Wojtek Gierlach, Bass
Arbace, captain of Baldassare's army - Giorgio Trucco, Tenor
Daniele, a prophet - Giovanni Bellavia, Bass-Baritone
Chorus of grandees and soldiers - ARS Brunensis Chamber Choir (Chorus master: Roman Valek)
Württemberg Philharmonic Orchestra
Antonino Fogliani, Conductor and Harpsichord
On 18 February 1812 Rossini wrote from Ferrara to his mother: 'My oratorio is going on well and all that I have written has been well received by the singers'. His feeling did not deceive him: on 14 March, ten days after the première of Ciro in Babilonia he wrote home from Venice, where he had gone for his next engagement: 'You must know that the result of my oratorio was excellent.'
Rossini often tended to gloss over his successes or failures to his mother, but on this occasion his report was in accord with the notice published on 17 March 1812 in the Giornale del Dipartimento del Reno: 'Last Saturday, the 14th, the promised oratorio was staged. The exceptionally successful performance crowned the great care taken by the author of the libretto, the composer of the music, the performers and the producer. The performance of the two ladies, Manfredini and Marcolini, and Signor Bianchi vied in terms of artistic excellence with that with which they had previously enchanted this theatre in Ginevra di Scozia (by Mayr) and the applause of the audience showed an equal appreciation of the performers' merits. Signor Aventi, who, at the request of some friends, amiably offered to write the libretto and to direct the oratorio, showed here his understanding of language, facility in versification and great talent in harmonising to the highest possible degree the accepted rules of drama with the needs of the performers and the audience. Signor Rossini, who wrote the music, received deserved and repeated applause after each number, particularly after the duet in the first act, the terzetto in the second, the aria of Signora Manfredini and the scenes of Signor Bianchi and Signora Marcolini … Finally this must be, as visitors who attended the performance testified, the best piece so far to have been given in the realm'.
These immediate reports of success contrast conspicuously with the testimony of Rossini himself made decades later to his friend Ferdinand Hiller and which since then has prevented an unprejudiced judgement of the opera: '[Ciro] is among my fiascos. When I returned to Bologna after its unfortunate performance, I received an invitation to a picnic. I ordered from the confectioner a ship of marzipan, with the word 'Ciro' on the pennant; the mast was broken, the sail in tatters, and it lay on its side, swimming in a sea of sweet cream. The cheerful company ate up my wrecked vessel with laughter.'
One of Rossini's usual understatements? Did he want to mislead Hiller and posterity or to disown a pretended sin of his youth? Rossini was certainly aware of certain weaknesses in this long-forgotten work and he did not want to awaken any deep interest in it. It is, therefore, quite possible that, in the telling of the story, there was a simple confusion with an incident that Rossini associated in his memory with Ferrara. As we have seen, after the performance of Ciro Rossini did not go back to Bologna, but travelled directly to Venice, where he awaited further commissions. Here he wrote Tancredi, among other works. This brought a reunion with Ferrara, when the Fenice Theatre gave a guest performance in the Teatro Comunale there on 21 March 1813. There Rossini replaced the original happy ending with an innovative tragic conclusion which found few supporters: the opera had no great success in Ferrara. Immediately thereafter Rossini had no engagements and the gap in correspondence until May suggests that he went back from Ferrara to his parents in Bologna. The episode with the capsized marzipan ship must have happened after the tragic finale of Tancredi, especially since the metaphor of the ship has more sense in relation to Tancredi than to Ciro.
In any case Hiller did not want to draw any overhasty conclusions: 'That does not show, however,' he interjected, 'that your Persian conqueror deserved his fate'. In fact Ciro enjoyed too a certain esteem outside Ferrara, also after it had undergone considerable changes. The opera was given more than thirty times in Italy before the end of the 1820s, a notable outcome. It had fewer performances abroad (there were reported performances in Vienna, Lisbon and London), but in Germany there were just three productions: it was among the first series of Rossini operas that came to Munich in 1816, and there were further performances recorded in 1819 in Weimar and in Dresden in 1822.
In no way, therefore, was Ciro one of Rossini's failures, a further reason to examine the history of its composition and the work itself.
Up to this point Rossini had had no experience with serious opera. As a student he had written piecemeal Demetrio e Polibio on the home-made libretto of Vincenzina Mombelli-Viganò for her husband and two daughters, without being involved himself in the first performance in Rome in 1812. In composing this work he lacked feeling for the whole piece, which is so important for an organic structure of balanced musical architecture, and the possibility of testing his work practically on the stage was denied him. With two Venetian farse, La cambiale di matrimonio (1810) and L'inganno felice (1811), and the two-act L'equivoco stravagante (Bologna 1811), Rossini made his successful début in the realm of comic and semi-comic opera. The renown of a composer depended substantially, however, on how he proved himself in the realm of serious opera, and so it was a great opportunity for Rossini when he received from Ferrara the commission to write the opera for Lent in 1812.
Rossini was not unknown in Ferrara. In the carnival season of 1809-10 he had directed from the harpsichord Ferdinando Orlandi's opera Il podestà di Chioggia. For this he wrote for the tenor Monelli the alternative aria Dolci aurette che spirate, through which he would have met the director of the Teatro Comunale, Francesco Aventi. Count Aventi was a nobleman with diverse interests, including literature, poetry and music. He would have been jointly responsible for the engagement of Rossini as composer of the 1812 Lenten opera, and for recommending the mainstay of the company of singers, Marietta Marcolini, for whom Rossini had written the leading female rôle in L'equivoco stravagante and for whom the breeches rôle of Ciro was now intended. That Aventi should also write the libretto of the novice's opera was not, however, originally planned. A manuscript of a Ciro libretto survives in Ferrara, on which it is noted, probably by Aventi: 'Libretto which was intended for Rossini and then was rejected, while Aventi wrote Ciro in Babilonia as a replacement'.
It is not very probable, but not to be ruled out, that Rossini himself may have found the original libretto unsuitable; in any event, it was realised in time that the text by the anonymous writer was in general not adequate for the requirements of theatre. Aventi, who had had earlier experience in writing a cantata text, undertook under pressure (but not all that much) from his friends the task of librettist. He took over, in fact, just a rough plot outline from the rejected incomplete work. The libretto had not only to bring the demands of the performers and audience into accord with dramatic rules, it also had to meet the requirements of Lent, when only theatre pieces with biblical subjects could be given. In principle it was a matter of a serious opera of conventional style, the plot of which was based on a biblical episode. In spite of many narrative shortcomings the bold fusion of biblical and secular sources does not lack a certain plausibility: the marital love of Cyrus and Amira, abducted and desired by the Babylonian King Belshazzar, is found in the narrative of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in the history of Herodotus and in Xenophon's Cyropaedia which, according to the Bible was the means of divine vengeance for Belshazzar's sins and which has its climax in the story of Belshazzar's Feast in the Old Testament Book of Daniel (Chapter 5).
This met perfectly the requirements of Lenten opera: a plot built on a biblical episode that did not lack specifically operatic ingredients such as the test of love, military scenes, the help of a turncoat, disguise and prison scenes, a funeral march and a sudden happy ending - all time-honoured elements that should remain in fashion for a long time. Aventi gave complete rein to his literary enthusiasm in the verse which, with its pseudo-Metastasian archaisms, in many places aroused Rossini's inspiration. Problems came in the dramatic structure and particularly in some complex ensemble scenes. Thus the first finale is little more than a run-of-the-mill quartet, with Rossini introducing none of the passages of increased intensity, such as we are accustomed to in his usual Act finales. The very scene that could have been the climax of the oratorio-opera, the banquet with the mysterious words Mene, mene, Tekel, Upharsin and the entrance of the prophet Daniel is so badly conceived that it can be no surprise that it is completely missed by the composer: a festive chorus opens the scene, interrupted by a recitative from Belshazzar, then taken up again; in a renewed recitative of the King comes the storm sequence and the writing on the wall; the chorus remains silent, with a new recitative of Belshazzar, then the entrance of Daniel, who reveals the meaning of the words in a recitative, followed by an aria, not of the prophet but of Belshazzar and the chorus, while Daniel has his solo piece only when he is left alone, after the exit of all the others.
Rossini ignored the complexities of the scenes as such, treating the choruses simply as choruses and the arias as arias, so that the oratorio element in the opera remained just what it really was: an inexpensive pretext for staging an opera in Lent. Yet we are far away from Mosè in Egitto (Naples 1818), where Rossini made a virtue of this excuse and set the elements of oratorio and of opera programmatically in contrast to one another. Rossini's own use of the term 'oratorio' is revealed as a word as empty as the description dramma con cori used for the first performance; the choruses have no exceptional position, the indication means only that there are choruses, something that was not necessarily so in a provincial theatre like Ferrara. Rossini concentrated entirely on the 'personal sphere', on the individual characters and their feelings. The numbers remain formally conventional, brought to life by Rossini's brilliant, exciting music which again and again penetrates into deeply touching, pathetic and melancholy realms of feeling. The construction of the libretto, but also his own, still limited experience, link him to the world of Demetrio e Polibio, with which Ciro has much more in common than with Tancredi (Venice 1813), which first opened the way to a new form of dramatic writing.
Yet in a few places, where the libretto offers him an opportunity, Rossini allows a greater dramatic instinct to make its appearance, for example in the scene in the second act which expands into a terzetto and in the great final scene of Ciro which links up with Mayr's Ariodante scene in Ginevra di Scozia and anticipates scenes of a Sigismondo, Tancredi and Aureliano. Bruno Cagli is not wrong, therefore, to maintain that the composer's lack of experience mirrors that of the librettist, and Martin W. Essinger described the work as 'full of soul but with no body'. It lacks a body since as a whole it is badly put together but it does offer a whole palette of glorious 'soulful' individual numbers.
Argene's One-Note Aria
'In one opera, Ciro in Babilonia', Rossini told his friend Hiller, 'I had a horrible secunda donna. She was not only impossibly ugly, but her voice too was beneath contempt. After the most careful investigation I found that she had one single note, the B flat above middle C, which did not sound bad. I therefore wrote her an aria in which she had no other note than this to sing, with everything in the orchestra and when this pleased the audience and was applauded, my one-note singer was extremely happy with her triumph'. (From Ferdinand Hiller's Plaudereien mit Rossini, 1855).
The 'secunda donna' in question was Anna Savinelli, who sang the rôle of Argene. Her aria Chi disprezza gl'infelici ('Those who despise the unfortunate') was for later performances, for which a better singer could be counted on, extended by contemporaries with additional notes. In this form it is included in many contemporary copies and also in the for long only modern revival of the opera for the performance in Savona in 1988 (to the perplexity and disappointment of expectant members of the audience familiar with the anecdote). In Wildbad this material is given to the orchestra, but under the one-note vocal line, as it is given in the nineteenth-century piano version published by Ricordi, so that the episode is given full authenticity.
English versions by Keith Anderson
[CD 1 / Track 1] Sinfonia
[1/2] The first act opens at the royal palace of Baldassare (Belshazzar), the cruel King of the Asyrians in Babylon. Princes and grandees of the realm celebrate the triumph of their king over the Persians. One of the princes, Zambri, describes their victory over Ciro (Cyrus), King of Persia, and the capture of the latter's son Cambise (Cambyses) and wife Amira. Baldassare enters with guards, leading in Amira and her confidante Argene. He proposes to marry Amira himself, to show his own power, offering her the throne. Amira rejects his suggestion, rebuked by the king.
[1/3] He tells her that her fate depends on him, but Amira remains adamant; she would rather lose her life than betray her love. Baldassare is angry, and threatens her, but in vain.
[1/4] He declares his firm intention, tired of her refusals and not wishing to hear the name of his enemy, Ciro. He tells Zambri to go and prepare for the marriage. Amira is left alone with Argene, her only comfort, who tries to reassure her. Amira goes out and Argene, who has found someone she knows, the Persian-born Arbace, a captain in Baldassare's army, remains alone. At this point Arbace enters, surprised to see his beloved Argene. He sympathizes with her fate, but nevertheless is happy to see her again and to be able to help her. Argene explains Baldassare's plan either to marry Amira or to put her to death, but Arbace tells her to give Amira some comfort and hope, ready to help them.
[1/5] The scene changes to a place outside the walls of Babylon, which can be seen in the distance. On one side is the gate of Babylon and a bridge. The soldiers of Ciro see their king approaching in sadness. Ciro appears, lamenting his fate, the loss of his wife and his son. He urges his men to revenge and victory, ready either to die or conquer.
[1/6] Ciro is ready to attack in the morning, he assures his men. At this moment a figure emerges from the city gates, Arbace, in Persian dress. He explains to Ciro that he was born in Persia and once was the lover of Argene, but is now a captain in Baldassare's army. He tells Ciro of Baldassare's plan to marry Amira and of her refusal, for which she will be put to death. He is ready to help Ciro
[1/7] and urges a certain caution.
[1/8] In the audience chamber of his palace Baldassare, with his guards and grandees, receives from Zambri an ambassador from the Persians, in fact Ciro in disguise. Baldassare supposes that the envoy seeks Amira and her son, and he is ready to yield the latter, but not Amira. Ciro comes forward and proposes peace between the Persian and the Assyrian King and the return of Ciro's wife and son. Baldassare will agree, if Ciro withdraws his forces; he will give him, as a pledge of peace, the prisoners he has taken and his son, but not Amira. Ciro angrily threatens Baldassare, who rebukes him. Ciro excuses himself by claiming to speak only for Ciro, not for himself. He is told that Amira must either submit to him or die. Amira enters, astonished to see Ciro, who quickly tells her that he is Ciro's ambassador, seeking news of Cambise and of her. Amira is barely able to answer, in her confusion.
[1/9] She would like to see and embrace her busband, but Heaven has shown her no pity. The chorus urge her to calm herself, but she is in despair.
[1/10] Baldassare sees that he terrifies Amira and tells Ciro that he may talk to her in private, although they will be observed. Baldassare, Zambri and the guards withdraw, while Cambise is led in to join his father and mother. Amira embraces her son and Ciro tells her that she must marry Baldassare, a suggestion that horrifes her. He embraces Cambise and tells her that the boy will die, if she resists, as will she herself. Amira is appalled at Ciro's seeming rejection of her, necessitated by the fact that they are overheard by Baldassare, but remains obdurate. She faints, but is revived by Ciro's voice, revealing his identity.
[1/11] Baldassare, Zambri and the guards return, ready to detain Ciro, now realising who he is. They surround him and put him in chains, while the chorus express their dismay at what has happened.
[2/1] The scene is a subterranean prison, with Persian prisoners and Ciro in chains and deepest sadness. The chorus want Amira to assuage Ciro's sorrow.
[2/2] Ciro wonders how it can be that he, the conqueror of Croesus and victor over the Lydians could have come to such a pass; yet to him the God of Israel has entrusted the task of vengeance, which he swears to fulfil, promising freedom to the people of Israel, if he wins. He hopes to see Amira again, who at this moment joins him and they embrace.
[2/3] Ciro finds comfort in this, and she is overjoyed to be with him.
[2/4] She hears voices, and he sees a light, as Baldassare approaches, some of his soldiers carrying torches. He threatens them, but Ciro is not afraid and Amira prefers death. At a command some soldiers surround Ciro and Amira and lead them away, while Baldassare too leaves the scene.
[2/5] In the royal palace Zambri and Argene are together. He tells her that she and Amira must attend the king's banquet.
[2/6] The scene changes to a great banqueting-hall, brightly lit, with luxurious hangings and precious vessels ready for the feast. Baldassare, Zambri, Amira, Argene, with other princes and Babylonian ladies, appear. They sing of the Arabian perfumes, wines and music, breathing happiness and love. Baldassare announces the feast in honour of his god Baal and the company take their places at the table around the king.
[2/7] Baldassare asks if the vessels are those seized from the Hebrew Temple, and he is assured that they are. He prepares to drink from one of the sacred vessels, to show his scorn of the conquered people of Jerusalem and his contempt for their God. At this there is thunder and lightning and a hand appears, writing on the wall the words 'Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin', to general consternation. Baldassare is seized by terror and would know the meaning of these words, sending a guard to fetch wise men to interpret the words. The Magi appear, with the prophet Daniel. He tells the king that he has displeased the God of Israel, scattering the people, destroying the Temple and profaning the sacred vessels. He goes on to foretell the division of the throne of Assyria between the Medes and Persians and the destruction of Babylon, with Baldassare and his people scattered like dust in the wind, not to see the sun rise again but to die.
[2/8] The swords of his enemies shall lay waste the towers and walls, and only reptiles and serpents shall remain, with no memorial in the world of this sinful city. With that he leaves.
[2/9] Baldassare is horrified at the prophecy and at the fate threatened for himself and his kingdom. The Magi, however, tell him not to listen to this mad interpretation; he will be victorious and happy, but the gods demand the death of Ciro, his wife and son. In answer to his questioning they assure him that their interpretation is right and that Amira too must die, while Baldassare is in doubt, ready to have Ciro and his son killed, but reluctant to put Amira to death. As they leave, the writing on the wall disappears.
[2/10] Argene and Amira enter, the former pledging her loyalty in life or death. Amira urges her to live in order to save Ciro and Cambise.
[2/11] She weeps for her husband and son and prays to the God of gods to hear her pleas and save her husband and son.
[2/12] In the palace Argene approaches Zambri, seeking his help to allow her to see the king, threatening divine vengeance, when he refuses.
[2/13] She warns him, in her aria on one note, that those who do not hear the pleas of the unhappy earn the anger of heaven.
[2/14] The scene changes to a great piazza in Babylon. Baldassare's palace can be seen on the right, and to the left a triumphal arch, giving onto the main gates. Arbace and his men escort Ciro's family to the place of execution, with Ciro, Amira, with their son, in chains, while Argene follows in an attitude of great sorrow. The chorus express pity, and Ciro declares his lack of fear for himself but his sadness at the fate of his wife and son.
[2/15] He turns to embrace his son, in sorrow.
[2/16] Baldassare asks the reason for delay, but Ciro threatens the vengeance of heaven if his wife and son are put to death. He tells his wife to dry her tears.
[2/17] He promises that they shall be together in Elysium, and would kiss and embrace Amira and Cambise once more, while Baldassare shows increasing impatience. The guards and their prisoners continue their progress, while Baldassare and some of his men move towards the palace. The sound of voices and of weapons indicate fighting. Guards, in flight, run in, with Zambri in despair.
[2/18] Zambri tells how, as Baldassare was in a deep sleep, the enemy soldiers defeated their men, and wonders now what will become of the king and their people. Drawing his sword he is about to go out, when he meets Ciro and Arbace, with Persian and Median soldiers. They challenge him, and he is amazed to see Ciro alive. Ciro tells him that Belshazzar's friends, family and followers must all die. Blood must be spilled to the last drop; no one should be spared. This was the command he had received from a god; this the revenge of an angry god. He goes out, followed by soldiers escorting Zambri, with Arbace leading the rest of the guards. Argene and Amira appear. Argene sees divine intervention in what has happened, and Amira gives thanks to heaven, in which she has rightly put her trust.
[2/19] Soldiers march into the main square of Babylon, with Ciro and Amira in a carriage, escorted by Persian guards. The triumphal procession brings Zambri in chains, with other Babylonian prisoners. The people proclaim the victory of Ciro and praise his expected clemency. Ciro attributes his victory to heaven, while Amira now expresses her relief at their renewed happiness. Zambri too expresses his hope for mercy, now heaven has been placated.
The Italian libretto may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660203.htm
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ROSSINI: Ciro in Babilonia