United Kingdom Gioachino Rossini, Mosé in Egitto: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera/Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno, 25.10. 2014. (RJF)
Mosè, Miklós Sebestyén, (bass)
Elcia, a Jewish girl loved by Osiride, Claire Booth (soprano);
Faraone, Pharaoh of Egypt, Andrew Foster-Williams (bar) (bass baritone)
Osiride, son of Faraone, beloved of Elcia, David Alegret (tenor);
Amaltea, Pharoah’s wife, Christine Rice (mezzo soprano);
Aronne, Moses’ brother, Barry Banks, (tenor);
Amnenofi, Elcia’s confidante, Leah-Marion Jones, (mezzo soprano);
Mambre, High Priest/Egyptian Officer, Nicky Spence’s (tenor) ,
Director, David Pountney
Set Designer, Raimund Bauer
Costume Designer, Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer, Fabrice Kebour
Chorus Master, Alexander Martin
Choreographer, Amir Housseinpour
Co-production with Houston Grand Opera.
For me this week of WNO’s season on tour represented a near unique experience. Despite many years of opera going, this was the first time since the late 1960s, I have had the pleasure of seeing two works live in productions for the first time, as distinct from a recorded video. The last time I enjoyed such a circumstance involved performances of Verdi’s Otello featuring Tito Gobbi as Iago and Bellini’s Norma the following night with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, – a dream cast. This time it was Mosé in Egitto and of William Tell., both rarely performed. That rarity makes some words of introduction and context appropriate.
Mosè in Egitto was Rossini’s twenty-fourth opera at its premiere at the San Carlo, Naples, on March 5th 1818. It was the fourth of the nine opera seria he composed for the Naples Royal Theatres during his musical directorship. The date of the premiere determined the biblical nature of the subject as the ordinances of the Catholic Church forbade the performance of pure opera during Lent. There was a further caveat to be observed, that in any such stage work during Lent, the Biblical and interpersonal relationships be clearly separated, with the latter predominantly confined to the arias and duets while the biblical drama being the domain of the scenes with chorus and ensemble.
Whilst related to the story in Exodus, the libretto of Mosè in Egitto is based on a play of 1760 where Pharoah, impressed by the plagues visited on Egypt by the God of the Jews, intends to set the Moses and his people free. His son Osiride, who is in love with a Jewish girl Elcia, dissuades him from doing so. Only after Osiride is struck dead by a shaft of lightning are the Israelites able to leave Egypt, but are pursued by Pharoah and his army swearing vengeance for the death. When the Israelites reach the Red Sea, Moses touches the waters with his rod causing them to part and allowing them to cross before closing again on the pursuing Egyptians.
At the premiere at the San Carlo, the third act parting of the Red Sea, itself unusual for Rossini at this stage of his career, posed severe difficulties for the technical staff of the theatre and they failed to produce a convincing staging of this part of the opera. This failure was directly responsible for the composer adding Moses’ prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio for a production in 1819 and which is now one of the most famous numbers from the opera. Despite the failure of the Red Sea to part in 1818, Mosè in Egitto was an immediate success and soon began to circulate in Italy and abroad, including England where Biblical subjects were not allowed on stage; consequently it was heard here in concert form as an oratorio. For the original, and as usual working under the pressures of time, Rossini borrowed music from his earlier Ciro in Babilonia for Amaltea’s aria in act two and called on Michele Carafa to provide an aria for Faraone,. He later replaced it with his own composition for the 1820 revival of the work. However, he pasted the original into the signed manuscript version, returning the original to Carafa.
For presentation at the San Carlo during Lent in 1819, which is the basis of Charles Bruner’s Critical Edition and of this performance, Rossini made several revisions. Most important was the addition, already noted, of the choral prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio in act three and which, with its soaring melody, became the most popular number in the opera and helped to maintain the work through to the present day. Aware of the virtues and popularity of the opera, Rossini revised it radically as Moïse et Pharaon, a four act French version, complete with ballet, for presentation at the Paris Opéra in 1827 (Review). This French version was in turn translated back into Italian using the title Mosè in Egitto. Scholars often have trouble determining exactly which version was actually performed later in the nineteenth century! With the original 1818 score lost, this present performance seems to mirror that performed in Bad Wildbad in 2006 (see review).
After the arrival of Carlo Rizzi on the rostrum and the usual applause, the theatre and stage light were dimmed. The first twenty or so minutes followed in absolute darkness. I gather the conductor used a neon LED for his beat and instructions to the orchestra. The darkness finished with sunlight emerging between the two large flats, one red on the Egyptian side, and the other blue, on the Hebrew side. These flats were move and rotated and eventually formed the basis for the challenges of the parting of the Red Sea in act three. The flats, the basic stage set here, also formed the set for William Tell, the design along with the Directory, being the same for both operas.
The costumes were something of a mish mash with the Egyptians wearing fezzes except for Faraone and Mambre, with Osiride in an orange lounge suit complete with tie. There are no great spectacles of splitting rocks and even the crossing of the Red Sea was somewhat understated with the final tableau confusing; was this meant to be the ultimate Hebrew-Egyptian reconciliation? If so, Rossini didn’t know about it. Suffice it to say that director David Pountney did not lose dramatic cohesion by the lack of visual spectacle or stage realism, focusing firmly on the dramatic story situations, emerging loves and their complications.
The singing cast were without weakness with several outstanding sung and acted performances. First among these was the singing of Claire Booth as Elcia, the Jewish girl loved by Osiride son of Faraone. A pure clear and strong lyric soprano, her vocal colour would be quite unlike Isabella Colbran, the creator of the role, who is reputed to have had a wide range and a mezzo colour to her vocal tone. That is as maybe, but is irrelevant in respect of the strength, purity and tonal variety and characterisation that Miss Booth brought to her interpretation. Her biography in the programme gives no pre-warning of her singing and interpretation here, quite outstanding in all respects , which made her scene at the end of act two a vocal highlight of the performance. As her Egyptian lover Osiride, sung at the premiere by Andrea Nozzari, the Juan Diego Florez of his day, David Alegret was likewise amazing in his range of voice overcoming, in his overall characterization, the stupidity of his orange costume! Christine Rice as Amaltea, Faraone’s wife who secretly sides with the Hebrews, sang with the tonal quality and a care for words and character for which she is justifiably renowned. So to Barry banks, also like Christine Rice RNCM trained, and whose small stature belies his vocal power and range along with his ability to create a role. His skills were to be heard in all their aspect the following night in William Tell, and have led to a major international career. As Aronne he sang with wide range and dramatic nuance. Another singer, Nicky Spence, also like Banks singing in William Tell, was a delight to hear and created much in his relatively brief opportunities, as did Leah-Marion Jones as Amnenofi. Of the lower voiced men singers, Andrew Foster-Williams had quite a lot to sing. Even if one would have liked a little more heft and colour in his voice, he created an excellent character whilst Miklós Sebestyén, was sonorous and made a good impression in his big moments at the start of the opera and in Mosès’ Pryer in act three.
All the above is not to forget the place of the chorus in this Lenten work. It could not have had better proponents that WNO’s chorus. The very best Italian choruses at La Scala or Bari or Rome are their equal, but not better. They sang with full-throated commitment, vibrancy along with idiomatic musicality and perfect articulation and diction. What they also do, that too many Italian opera choruses do not, is act as well as sing. Their contribution was made possible by the efforts of the chorus master and the speciality of conductor Carlo Rizzi in this repertoire, whose return to the WNO rostrum for these two Rossini works has been essential to their realisation and success.
Robert J Farr