Rossini Helps A Company Bounce Back with Style and Grace

United StatesUnited States Rossini, Moses in Egypt: Soloists, Michael Counts (director); Jayce Ogren (conductor); New York City Opera at City Center. 14-4-13 (RDA)

Rossini: Moses in Egypt

Randall Bills, Wayne Tigges, Keri Alkema, David Cushing, Aldo Caputo, Zachary Finkelstein, Sian Davies, Emily Righter and David Salsbery Fry

Nothing could make me happier than to see the New York City Opera return to its former days of glory—not at the acoustically-unfriendly New York State Theatre (a space originally conceived as the home for the New York City Ballet), but to its heyday as a scrappy new opera company working in the cramped backstage of the old City Center theatre on West 55th Street. There and later at Lincoln Center, more than ninety world, American and or New York premieres were given, and singers such as José Carreras, David Daniels, Plácido Domingo, Catherine Malfitano, Sherrill Milnes, Samuel Ramey, Beverly Sills, Norman Treigle and Tatiana Troyanos began their careers.

After the untimely resignation of Gérard Mortier, the savvy George Steele has helmed the company through bad, worse, and worst times and is just now beginning to emerge victorious after proving to all the doubting-Thomas types of the opera world that NYCO can bounce back with style and grace. Currently the company is in residence at City Center with a very nice production of Rossini’s Moses in Egypt alternating with Offenbach’s La Perichole.

In his review for Seen and Heard International of a concert version of this lesser-known Rossini work, my colleague Stan Metzger perceptively pointed out the work’s assets and liabilities.

Moses and the Israelites stayed in Egypt for what to them felt like an eternity. Rossini’s opera, over three hours in length with a single intermission, comes dangerously close at times to overstaying its welcome and feeling eternal too. There’s glorious music—none more so than the famous prayer “Dal tuo stellato soglio” (for chorus and soprano/tenor/bass trio), which alternates with lengthy accompanied recitatives that fail to keep company with Rossini’s best. But there are also boilerplate arias, which follow one after another in numbing succession, with now and then a duet that makes one sit up and take notice. The overture could just as easily serve as an opener for a Rossini comedy with its galloping crescendi and its bouncy major key tunefulness.

As for the production, credit is due all around to director-designer Michael Counts, costumer Jessica Jahn and the enormously imaginative videography of Ada Whitney and Beehive. Together all these creative people flesh out a compelling ancient Egypt, in which the hosts are disembodied figures straight out of a hieroglyph and the wanted-but-unwilling guests are a dignified people clad in the earth tone and humble cottons of captivity. Both ethnicities are visually pitted against each other in an ever-changing background of hyper-realistic and immensely effective desert scenes.

Young American singers fare well at the NYCO. Plenty of rehearsal time, attention paid to acting and musical niceties, and age-appropriate casting (vocal age and chronological age being two different things)—all pay off in the process of nurturing the next crop of international singers.

In the title role, bass-baritone David Salsbery Fry stepped in for an ailing colleague on short notice. He got off to a cautious start. His first utterance, “Eterno, immenso incomprensibil Dio,”lacked the patriarchal gravity that other basses who have been associated with this bearded prophet have given—Rossi, Lemeni, Christoff, Ghiaurov and Siepi among them. He fared better as the evening progressed and finally earned grateful applause from an audience for which he saved the day.

Rossini wrote Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge for a who’s who cast of his day. The great basso Levasseur sang the title role in the Paris version and faced Henri-Bernard Dabadie as his nemesis. Dabadie (later singing the title role in William Tell and the part of Rimbaud in Le Comte Ory) was a baritone, not a bass, which may explain why the vocally miscast Wayne Tigges labored in the high-lying role of Faraone, and the lack of contrasting vocal colors in his several encounters with bass-baritone Salsbery Fry.

Three Rossini tenors are needed for the roles of Osiride, Aronne and Mambre, and Randall Bills, Aldo Caputo, and Zachary Fikelstein respectively served their roles well, singing opposite Sian Davies (Elcia), Emily Righter (Amenofi), and New York City audience favorite Keri Alkema, who in the role of the imperious queen Amaltea proved vocally and dramatically that she is ready for her De Mille operatic close up right now. Alkema has voice and personality to spare and never looks silly, even when directors ask for silly things to be done.

Conductor Jayce Ogren led a tight reading of the score that still allowed plenty of breathing and embellishing room for the cast, as well as the precise orchestra and the superb chorale of the Manhattan School of Music.

Rafael de Acha