An early Rossini opera is done as a silent movie



Ciro in Babilonia -- Back when Rossini was only 20, opera composers were expected to turn out works on a biblical theme for Lent. So his fourth professional opera, performed in 1812, took on the tale of "Ciro in Babilonia." Ciro is Italian for Cyrus, in case one wonders.

Although it has a happy ending, this opera seria is very serious indeed. There are at least four show-stopping arias, lots of ensemble work, but very little chorus work. And very little action. So, staged as written, it would make for a somewhat tedious 165 minutes, which is the timing of a 2012 production shown at the Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, conducted by Will Crutchfield, on an Opus Arte DVD.

So the director decided on a framing device. The opera itself is being shown to a small audience in the days of silent movies -- as a silent movie! While the onstage audience members sit to one side of the stage -- or in one case at the back of the stage -- they act as both spectators and chorus.

To give the illusion of a vintage silent film, all the costumes are in black-and-white (but at least not updated), while the scenery is projected onto the back of the stage. This would be fine, except it was decided to add scratch marks (which would not be seen when the film stock was new) to add to the illusion. But since they never stop, I began to get a slight headache from this bright idea that only distracts.

So I might have enjoyed it more by turning off the video. However, I did get a kick out of the silent-era costumes and makeup (which was also all white skinned to give that Theda Bara look) and even the old-style acting, some of which was (also distractingly) projected onto the backdrop.

The cast, however, played it straight. Ciro was played by the incredible contralto Ewa Podles, who brought down the house with her first aria. Ciro’s wife Amira (Jessica Pratt), now along with her son a prisoner of the evil Baldassare [Belshazzar] (Michael Spyres), soon followed with another aria that the audience applauded for some time. And each major character had a chance to wow the crowd -- a rigid requirement in opera seria.

So this is a very interesting opera to watch for its hints of the Rossini to come and the fun of the production as a whole, if one is not too picky. There are subtitles. But as usual, the Opus Arte people disdainfully omit a tracking list in the program notes, making it very difficult to find a given spot on the disc.

Jack Irish -- Having complained for a long time about the similarities among all crime series, I have run across one that does not have a shred of originality. It is called "Jack Irish, Set 1," on the Acorn Media label; and the press release states in a bold font, "Guy Pearce stars in the acclaimed Aussie crime drama; based on the award-winning books by Peter Temple." I know nothing about the books but I wonder who did the acclaiming of the television series.

Those who watched "Jack Taylor," reported on some weeks ago, will notice that so many protagonists of crime dramas now sport those not-quite-grown beards that are never shaved but somehow never grow fuller. Like so many other crime fighters, Irish loses his wife at the start of the series (many losses occur before the series starts). Like too many others, Irish turns to drink and relies on several shady, semi-comic characters to help him bring the Bad Guys to justice.

All this takes place in Australia, but the plots could take place just about in any urban setting. His part of the country, as the back cover puts it, is "a seedy place of lowlifes, corruption, violence, and retribution." So what else is new?

There are, of course, what has come to be called the "requisite" sex scenes. How much bare flesh exposed varies, but cutting them would in no way leave any gaps in the plots.

Peace plays it without much of a trace of humor, and I found myself wishing the two 100-minute episodes were only 50 minutes each. At the least the subtitles helped me with the dialogue.

This set contains two discs: one DVD, one Blu-ray. The consumer pays for both.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays.


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