Notes and Editorial Reviews
Ciro in Babilonia was Rossini's first opera seria. Actually, it was performed during Lent, 1812, and the just-20-year-old composer had to call it a "dramma con cori", or oratorio, to get it performed. It did well enough, although Rossini was not pleased with it. It was presented in many Italian cities and in Munich, Vienna, and Weimar (and in concert in London) until about 1827. It then disappeared until 1988. It's hardly a masterpiece, but there is plenty to admire and enjoy: two lovely arias for Amira (mezzo-soprano); a duet for Amira and Baldassare (tenor); a good aria for Ciro (alto); and a fine second-act finale.
It also contains the infamous aria written entirely on the note of B-flat for a minor character, Argene (mezzo), confidante of Amira: "I had a horrible secunda donna," Rossini told a friend. "She was not only impossibly ugly, but her voice too was beneath contempt." He goes on to say that after "careful investigation" he realized that the B-flat above middle-C "did not sound bad", and so that's the note he chose. It's fun to hear.
Rossini took the overture from L'inganno felice and a number or two from Demetrio e Publio; but these are scarcely familiar, even to the modern listener. You can skip the tedious recitatives and a pair of totally uninspired brief arias for minor characters (Daniel the prophet has a strangely jolly aria prophesying doom). So don't expect to be dazzled, although as usual, Rossini is rarely less than entertaining.
The plot concerns Ciro, who has been defeated in battle by Baldassare, and whose wife, Amira, he has taken prisoner. Ciro also winds up being imprisoned by Baldassare, and during a feast a mysterious message appears, which the prophet Daniel claims expresses the wrath of God; Baldassare's astrologers think it's asking for the death of Ciro, Amira, and their child. But Babylon falls and Ciro is named King, saving the day for the good guys.
This performance makes a good case for the opera. Anna Gemmabella is a real contralto with a rich, dark-colored voice and accurate coloratura, and she makes the trouser role of Ciro a powerful figure. Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade's mezzo is a bit too bright--it borders on shrill at times--but she can shade it and she impresses. Her second-act aria with violin obbligato--a nice piece from the ever-creative Rossini--is a treat, and her agility is admirable. As the wicked Baldassare, Riccardo Botta offers a tenor that is flexible and has a bit of bite, but he hardly sounds villainous. Maria Soulis has the (dis)honor of singing Argene's one-note aria well. The others are not anything like major singers, but they sing well enough.
Chorus and orchestra are fine and the live performance has great vigor under Antonio Fogliani. Another performance of this opera, once available on Akademia from the Savona production in 1988, features a good cast--Daniela Dessi, Ernesto Palacio, and Caterina Calvi--but unfeeling conducting from Carlo Rizzi. No libretto is supplied, but a track-by-track synopsis is helpful. One track listing, of a scene by Ciro in Act 2, is attributed to a character named Tamiri, who does not exist in this opera. Not top-drawer Rossini, but a fine entertainment. Recommended.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com