Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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August 24, 2016

Ciro in Babilonia

Davide Livermore is a director who seems to know nothing but the movies, but he knows a lot about movie history.  I have seen productions of his inspired by '30's gangster movies (I vespri siciliani), 40's ghost comedies (Demetrio e Polibio), 30's madcap romantic comedies (L'Italiana in Algeri), silent screen epics (Ciro in Babilonia), and now Fellini opuses.  In fact, two of his productions are on view this year, a rerun of 2012's Ciro as if it were a silent film epic and a new production of Turco in Italia which owes everything to Fellini, especially 8 1/2.  

I think that the Ciro worked best.  It is Rossini's first performed opera seria, written for the Lenten season (in Ferrara) when normal operas could not be performed, closing the theaters.  But operas with biblical, morally uplifting stories were ok, and they could contain a traditional love story too.  Rossini wrote two of these--Ciro and MosÚ in EgittoCiro (Cyrus) uses the Belshazzar's Feast story from the Book of Daniel, in which the Babylonian tyrant (Baldassare in the opera) is overcome by the Hebrew God for having defiled the temple in Jerusalem and desecrated the sacred vessels at the banquet feast.  A disembodied hand (God's presumably) writes three words on the wall which the Prophet Daniel interprets to mean that Baldassare will die and his kingdom will be divided between the Persians and the Medes.  Before these fatal events, Baldassare has captured Ciro's wife and son, and he wants to marry her.  Ciro too is eventually captured, but all is saved at the last moment when Daniel's prophecy comes to pass. 


Musically Ciro is an uneven opera, with some music (including the overture) drawn from recent Rossini comedies.  It would probably be impossible to take seriously, and Director Livermore has given it the campy frame of an ancient silent movie epic, especially the historically important Italian film Cabiria (1914) and its most famous sibling, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916).  In the Griffith film, one of the four episodes is about Belshazzar's Feast and includes Cyrus.  This seems to be the source of Gianluca Falaschi's wonderful costume designs in black and white, while Pastrone's Cabiria includes the abduction of a child, something that happens in the opera production when a child in the audience goes into the film and becomes Ciro and Amira's son, who has also been kidnapped by Baldassare.  I suspect that the Cabriria sets are also the models for the video-projected sets designed here by Livermore's collaborator D-Wok.  In one scene, we watch as a prison is built (in computer animation projections) stone by stone.  Most of the time we see the live action too as if through projections of scratchy film.  There are occasional projections of our singers, too, in the exaggerated poses and expressions we associate with early film acting style (much of which was based on operatic acting of the time).  There is even an "audience" on stage, dressed in costumes from the teens of the last century.  The style, in this case, fits the opera.  I found it an engaging production, if at times a little too busy and frenetic. 


Ciro himself is a mezzo soprano or contralto pants role, and here, once again (the production was first seen in 2012), the role was sung by the extraordinary Ewa Podles.  Ms. Podles, now well into her 60's, is probably the most remarkable female singer around.  She has an astonishing range of more than three octaves and the agility to handle Rossini.  It is a very big voice too.  If some of the flexibility she once had is now gone, she is still a wonder to listen to.  Sometimes it seems that she has two voices, one beautiful and rich and the other a profound growl.  She brought the house down with her great final scena, ending with an endlessly held note.  Ciro's wife Amira, held captive by Baldassare, was sung by Pretty Yende, the young South African soprano who recently made a hit at the Met as the Countess in Comte Ory.  Ms. Yende has a lovely, flexible soprano and a thorough schooling in Rossinian technique.  She was flawless.  Antonio Siragusa, a man with a bold, up-front tenor was the scheming villain Baldassare.  He has good high notes, a lot of agility and a lot of squillo.  The prophet Daniello, who sang his buffo-like prophecy aria, was bass Dimitri PkhaladzeJadar Bignamini led the Orchestra and Chorus of Bologna's Teatro Comunale.


Ewa Podles and Pretty Yende

One curiosity of the score is an aria on one note for the secondary role of Argene, Amira's companion.  According to Rossini's recollection decades after the fact, the original soprano only had one good note, so he made her aria, "Chi disprezza gl'infelici" on that single note while the orchestra plays a multi-faceted accompaniment around her.  Later, for another production, Rossini had a better soprano and composed a more conventional aria, which was done (according to my recollection) in 2012.  I am glad they restored the one-note aria this time, although I am sure that the Argene (Isabella Gaudi) has many other fine notes.


Also decades later, Rossini remembered that Ciro in Bablonia had been a failure.  A cake had been presented to him, he said, with a marzipan boat on top named "Ciro" sinking in a sea of whipped cream.  But modern research has shown that the opera was not a failure, having a number of revivals in various Italian cities.  It is worth hearing, for Ciro's two wonderful scenes, especially the long final scena, "T'abbraccio, ti stringo"--tragic music when Ciro believes that he has been condemned to die--and major arias for the tenor and the soprano in Act II.

Il Turco in Italia, or Rossini Channels Fellini

The other "movie" opera on view in Pesaro this summer is a production of the comedy Il Turco in Italia done up as Federico Fellini's famous film 8 1/2Turco's libretto (by Felice Romani) tells the story of a Poet (Prosdocimo) who has to write the libretto for an opera buffa, but can't find inspiration because 'this one is too sentimental, that one seems insipid'.  Suddenly a group of gypsies appear and inspiration starts flowing.  One by one the Poet conjures the characters who will 'create' the story of the opera buffa--the foolish husband Geronio, his pretty wife Fiorilla, her would-be lover Don Narciso and finally the Turk, Selim, who has come to Italy to study the local customs--and the women.  Selim and Fiorilla fascinate each other, and flirt with an affair in mind, but they are stopped when it is discovered that the gypsy fortune teller is Zaida, his former  fiancÚ.  The Poet directs the plot until eventually all ends happily (sort of); Fiorilla goes back to her husband and the Turk and Zaida sail off to Turkey. 


The Director, Davide Livermore, must have immediately seen the resemblance of Romani's plot to Fellini's 8 1/2 because his production is not merely Fellini-esque, it is inspired directly by characters and scenes in the film, and he makes the opera a homage to Fellini.  In the 1963 film, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a film director (Fellini himself of course) who has writer's block, like the Poet in the opera.  He can't settle on a story for his new film, which is to be a science fiction work, nor can he cast the actors.  Thus before the music starts in the opera, we have a short dramatic scene where the singers--in costume--plead with the Poet (i.e., the Director/Guido/Fellini) to come "down" and get things started; they call each other by their real names as singers--Olga [Peretyatko], Nicola [Alaimo], etc., and the Poet is Pietro [Spagnoli].  After their brief dialogue, the overture starts in the orchestra, and we get "screen tests" of each of the main characters, also a major theme in the film.  When the chorus enters, they are dressed as Fellini's circus characters--clowns, a strong man, a sword-swallower, acrobats, musicians--and not as gypsies; Zaida is a cross between a gypsy and the bearded lady in the circus.  These are Fellini's beloved "freaks," who play a big part in the end of the film, and who also are there for the end of the opera.

Most of Act I is based on the 'harem' scene from the film, when Guido imagines himself in a harem and attended by a group of, once again, strange and freakish women.  There is a giant tub, wherein Guido/the Poet is washed and then swaddled in towels.  There is a woman with a feathered show-girl costume, a black girl in a white dress with a long slit up the leg, and a woman in a fright wig who shakes her ample breasts from time to time.  All of these, and others, are Fellini characters, right out of the movie.  Even his attendant/wife Giulietta Masina is there.  There are even gestures and hand movements copied from the movie; it is as if Fellini's world had landed in the 1814 comic opera.  The character of the Turk, who does not have a close analogue in 8 1/2, is probably from Fellini's The Sheik.

pesaro 13

In Act II, stagehands bring down a big staircase from metallic structures, and there are bright stage lights pointed at the audience.  This is from the end of the film, when a giant staircase is built out of the stage set for the space ship when Guido is unable to complete his film.  In other words, the opera production is not just inspired by Fellini or a homage to him, it actually copies many of the aspects of a particular film, and brings them to the stage of the Teatro Rossini.  I wonder if Fellini's estate received royalties.

Although I immediately understood the Fellini reference in the production, I must admit I had to research the particulars, and I am sure I missed a lot.  I haven't seen 8 1/2 for at least 40 years, even if it does rate as one of the ten greatest films ever made.  And I am not enough of a film buff to recall it in detail.  I wonder if others in the audience were mystified by the concept, so lovingly and slavishly presented.  How many average people today have seen 8 1/2?  Although figuring it out was an amusing intellectual game, I felt at times that the concept overwhelmed the opera: Romani-Rossini's already innovative opera came in second.  Fellini was first.

Still, I managed to enjoy the show, more the second time around on August 18 (we also saw it on Aug. 15), and the sold out audience seemed to love it.  Erwin Schrott sang the Turk.   He is a bass-baritone with a deep, resonant and beautiful voice.  He seemed a little tentative to me on the 15th, but he was fully in command by the 18th.  He is a handsome, slim man, more a Belcore (Elisir d'amore) or Don Giovanni than a silly character, but vocally he was good.  The inimitable Nicola Alaimo was his antagonist, the fearful, henpecked husband Geronio.  He was wonderful as always in his buffo antics; they even gave him an aria in Act II, probably not by Rossini, but delightful nonetheless, "Se ho da dirla," an aria normally cut in production.  (Likewise, the minor character Albazar got his aria di sorbetto ("Ah! sarebbe troppo dolce"), and it was very well sung too.)  Rene Barbera was for some reason clothed as a priest (more Fellini?), but he sang well in both of his arias, particularly the second one ("Tu seconda il mio disegno"), with ringing high notes.  Pietro Spagnoli was excellent as the Poet.  There was almost a disaster in the first performance we saw, when he slapped a small table holding a typewriter, which was placed on the stage apron; the typewriter fell off the table and into the orchestra pit, bringing the performance to a halt for a few minutes.  A violin player was injured on the shoulder.

Olga Peretyatko sang Fiorilla.  There had been some discussion that she was having vocal problems; she had been booed at the second performance, and at the third, which we saw, she seemed to lack some force and had a little trouble with some coloratura in her big scena, "Squallida veste, e bruna."  In the next performance, she seemed fine, however.  As always, she acted well, with a good sense of comic timing, and she is a lovely woman.  Finally, Cecilia Molinari sang Zaida, the bearded lady.  Speranza Scapucci conducted the Filarmonica Gioachino Rossini and the Coro del Teatro della Fortuna M. Agostino.  She led the forces with appropriate brio and understanding of comic Rossini, and she also played the forte piano.  Still, although the musical performance was good, it did not rise to the level of great, lacking that fizz or oomph that the greatest Rossini comedy has. 

The amusing 1950's costumes were by Gianluca Falaschi--all in black and white (like Fellini's movie) except for the colorful and brightly costumed circus characters who made up the chorus.

I've seen better Turco's, but I have seen worse too.  Now I have to check 8 1/2 out of our local library, and maybe Cabiria and Intolerance.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network