Rossini Opera Festival (ROF) (1) – Where Was Moses When the Lights Went Out?

ItalyItaly Rossini, Mosè in Egitto:  Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale Bologna; Conductor, Roberto Abbado; Director, Graham Vick; Sets and Costumes Stuart Mann; Lighting Giuseppe di Iorio; Chorus Master, Lorenzo Fratini, : Rossini Opera Festival (ROF), Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, 14.8.2011 (JB)

Cast: Pharaoh – Alex Esposito; Amaltea, his Consort – Olga Senderskaya; Osiride, heir to the Throne – Dmitry Korchak; Elcia -Moses’ niece – Sonia Ganassi; Moses -Riccardo Zannellato


Songs by Rachmaninoff and Rossini:A Recital by Dmitry Korchak (tenor) with Alexander Pokidchenko (piano), Auditorium Pedrotti, Pesaro, 16.8.2011

Production Picture Credit © Studio amati bacciardi

Rossini’s forays into the Moses Business were complex, varied and resoundingly successful. In his first opera – Mosè in Egitto (Naples, San Carlo, 1818), the Hebrew leader is marginalized and only becomes a real protagonist in Moïse et Pharaon (Paris, 1827). Although the French staging contained much reworking of the Naples material, it also contains enough new material (including a whole act with ballet – a Paris requirement) to be best considered as a different opera.

It was courageous and insightful of the ROF to give us the original 1818 San Carlo production. Or nearly. At the premiere’s final scene, depicting the parting of the Red Sea, the San Carlo’s mechanisms failed and the audience were reduced to laughter at the resulting farce. To cover this fiasco, when the opera was repeated a year later, Rossini composed the prayer – Dal tuo stellato soglio – one of his most moving compositions. Would the ROF have the daring to omit it as not being part of the original? Fortunately sense took precedence over daring and they didn’t.

You may think that the parting of the Red Sea is farcical whichever way you tackle it. Graham Vick seemed to think so. In his extremely intelligent staging at the opera’s end, the auditorium was filled with gunmen, masked in black from head to foot, darting through blinding flashing spot lights, aiming rifles at the audience while flats collapsed on stage, raced across by the chorus of Hebrews, while Moses, in the meantime has rustled up a four times life-size army tank, crowned with the Israeli flag. (Some boos here from a small dissenting section of the audience.)

The Atlantic Arena (seating 1200) has to be the ugliest building in Italy, never mind Pesaro: all steel girders and corrugated metal roof with some suspended wooden floaters which do wonders for the acoustic. But Mr Vick likes factory atmospheres. He had even dressed the ushers in workers’ overalls. Even those (not me) who didn’t find the staging moving, could not complain that it was inconsistent. To me and many others it made excellent dramatic and musical sense.

There is a strong case for regarding the 1818 opera as Rossini’s major choral work with the chorus of Hebrews as its protagonist. Rossini always maintained that it was his oratorio. The chorus parts are demanding and varied and Lorenzo Fratini did an excellent job in bringing out all the subtleties of this writing in his chorus of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale. Roberto Abbado too, shaped the same theatre’s orchestra into impressive shape and purposefulness, fully appreciative of the many dramatic opportunities which the score gives.

The San Carlo’s colourful General Manager, Domenico Barbaja, handed over to Rossini a sly, versifying monk, Andrea Leone Tottola, as his librettist for an opera which had to be presented during Lent, so with one foot in the Church and the other in the Opera. Barbaja also effectively handed over his mistress at the time – the Spanish soprano, Isabella Colbran, who would later become Mrs Rossini. (Writing this, I realize it is beginning to sound like a plot for one of Rossini’s own comic operas.)

Tottola abandoned the Book of Exodus as his main source and used an eighteenth century play, L’ Osiride, which shifts the focus onto an illicit love affair between Moses’ niece Elcia and the Pharaoh’s son, Osire (Colbran and Andrea Nozzarini at the premiere.) ROF had Sonia Ganassi and Dmitry Korchak in these roles.

It is useless to complain that Sonia Ganassi is no Colbran. (Interested readers may know Joyce Di Donato’s impressive CD of Colbran numbers.) Ganassi fans speak highly of the dark colouring of her voice. But to my ear that darkness can quickly become foggy and falter on intonation. However, her voice blends beautifully with others and ever with an ear and eye for the requirements of oratorio, Rossini hands her a good deal of ensemble singing here. And though the character of Elcia is full of stress, Ganassi did not overplay this element on this occasion.

Vocally and physically, Dmitry Korchak is almost perfect as Osiride. His outstanding technique is forever at the service of an even more remarkable musicianship. Even more revealing was his Recital of half a dozen songs of Rachmaninoff and half a dozen of Rossini. He forced his way through these dozen songs. He is the exception to a fundamental vocal rule. Forcing is natural to him. He sounds comfortable with it. There is virtually no chest voice; it is all from the throat and the head and often unsupported. Yet what an astonishing variety of vocal sounds he brings out with this seemingly limited physical approach. He will set a vibrato going after he has placed a note. I tried to see if this was a trick he did with his cheeks. With any other singer this would play havoc with intonation. But his intonation is the most impressive you have ever heard. Unorthodox as his emission may be, it is clearly right for him. Alexander Pokidchenko’s piano accompaniments to these songs were supportive in the most musical way.

ROF had found another outstanding singer in Alex Esposito as Pharaoh. His first act aria – Cade dal ciglio il velo – brought a thunderous, prolonged and deserved ovation. Rossini expression at its best.

Olga Senderskaya as his Consort was admirable in all the ensembles but sounded a little underpowered in her aria – La pace mia smarita. Riccardo Zanellato made the most of his single aria as Moses –Tu di ceppi m’aggravi la mano?: dignified, authoritative and clear in diction.

In a witty and well-informed programme essay, Giovanni Carli Ballola, quoting Pharaoh, uses as a title, Venga Mosè (Send for Moses). But in truth, we have to wait for 1827 in Paris before Rossini does that.

Jack Buckley