An Italian in Egypt: Rossini’s Rarely Heard Moïse et Pharaon

03/12/2011

United StatesUnited States G. Rossini, Moïse et Pharaon: The Collegiate Chorale,  American Symphony Orchestra,James Bagwell (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 30.11.2011 (SSM)

(Concert Version)

Cast:

James Morris – Moïse (Moses)
Kyle Ketelsen – Pharaon (Pharaoh)
Angela Meade – Sinaide, his wife
Eric Cutler – Aménophis, their son
Marina Rebeka  – Anaï, a Hebrew girl
Michele Angelini – Ēliézer (Aaron)
Ginger Costa – Jackson – Marie (Miriam), Moses’ sister
John Matthew Myers – Ophide, a priest
Joe Damon Chappel – Osiride, the High Priest
Christopher Roselli – Une voix mystérieuse

Cast of Moïse et Pharaon Photo (c) Erin Baiano

Their Collegiate Chorale’s eclectic programs, ranging from a revival of a Kurt Weill musical to Handel’s Israel in Egypt,have always been presented with enthusiasm and gusto. These events require massive resources: a symphony orchestra, soloists and a chorus of two-hundred and fifty singers. As in the past Moïse et Pharaon was a one-time only performance, but in the best of all possible worlds, a successful production like this one should be offered again to those who hear about it later through the press and the internet.

The score of this opera has been handed down in an 1827 version, the result of Rossini bowing to the exigencies of evolving tastes political and financial realities, and the language of the country in which he was residing. The source for Moïse et Pharaon was his earlier opera Mosè in Egitto. The new libretto, now in French, was redesigned by eliding, reshuffling and augmenting that work to make it more in keeping with the changing French taste of the day.

There is a considerable disconnect, most noticeably in the first and second acts, between the music and the text. The overture is classic Rossini with his signature coda consisting of rapidly accelerating crescendos, which seems an inappropriate lead-in to a story whose central theme is religious persecution. The first two acts were particularly static with much proselytizing and goings back and forth on whose god(s) are the true gods. As the synopsis in Playbill ironically states, “It takes another three acts to let the people go.” The librettists must have known that without the addition of some character development, the work would end up being knocked down a step from an opera to an oratorio.

What was only partially developed in the first half of the opera becomes the main theme of the second half, a story that persists to the end of the opera: the love between Moses’ niece Anaï and the Pharaoh’s son becomes the central subject of the final two acts. Other singers come on stage to augment the cast and the added story line puts a face on the characters who were previously only sketched out. The music changes at the beginning of Act III with an overture of a more serious and complex nature than the earlier two, and orchestra and chorus seemed connected now that drama and serious music had taken central stage. Given Rossini’s ability at orchestral coloring, it is surprising that he didn’t take advantage of musically voicing the plagues, instead of simply mentioning that they were wreaked upon the Egyptians. It has always been the highlight of Handel’s telling of the same story (minus the lover’s tale) in his oratorio, Israel in Egypt.

Angela Meade as Sinaide in Moïse et Pharaon Photo (c) Erin Baiano

 

There were several miscues and flubs by the orchestra, mainly in Acts I and II. The musicians were not fully in rapport with one another until after the intermission. If there was a halftime pep talk by the conductor, it would explain the better playing in the second half. The singers ranged from adequate to superb. James Morris was an ideal choice in the role of Moïse, his voice convincing in its authority. Kyle Ketelsen couldn’t reasonably compete with Morris, but sang the role of Pharaon confidently. Marina Rebeka as the emotionally torn Anaï fared well with most of the more difficult bel canto arias, but was unquestionably one-upped by the glorious voice of Angela Meade. The most disappointing part of the evening was the very minor role Miss Meade had in the production; it was not surprising that her profile in Playbill states she has won 53 competitions. Special mention should also be given to Eric Cutler whose role as Aménophis was bold and undaunting.

For Rossini-ites, the big surprise of the evening was the opera’s pianissimo ending. It would be tricky to try and outdo musically the parting of the sea and the drowning of the Egyptians, but all the same there was a slight letdown in not getting the big Rossini coda.

Stan Metzger

 

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