Oh, Rossini, Rossini! You mad, adorable fool! What power could you find in the theaters of Paris to keep you from Neapolitan arms?
If you are fond of Rossini (or any other major composer), you will want to collect the whole set. Each piece of the jigsaw adds detail to the picture, but there are switchbacks and double-exposures that can be tricky, as the busy and hugely successful young composer recycled or redeveloped old, ill-received or, in a new location, unfamiliar material.
The French composer Hérold, scouting Naplesfor the home team, wrote that Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (1818) could easily be turned into an oratorio or grand opera in the Parisian manner. In 1824, Rossini arrived in Paris to take over the Théátre-Italien, and soon remodeled Maometto II (1820) for L’Opéra as Le Siège de Corinthe (1826). He topped that in 1827 with Moïse et Pharaon, much expanded from the earlier Mosé.
There is much to be learned of Rossini’s method, the development of his style, from hearing both these Mosaic works. In the 1820s, Naples and Paris were proud capital cities with very different operatic traditions and whole rafts of local singers to practice them. This is often forgotten today when there is hardly anyplace left on the operatic circuit with a national style of singing (Russia may be the exception), and most important singers appear in half a dozen countries without bothering to change style – the operatic audience is now itself international.
Whichever version you choose, Rossini’s Moses is full of splendid vocal opportunities for soloists, chorus, orchestra – and producer if you can afford to stage it – and audiences will swoon for a great cast. On November 30 at Carnegie Hall, the 1827 French version was given by the Collegiate Chorale with more top-notch Rossini singers than most major opera houses could afford to squander on any single work. We swooned.
And those of us who had heard Guillaume Tell (1829) at Caramoor last summer or Semiramide (1823) a couple of years back, or the Met’s recent Armida (1817) or Le Comte Ory (1828) or any of the local performances of Ermione (1819) or La Donna del Lago (1819) or Il Viaggio a Reims (1825) or Otello (1818), had another piece of the puzzle to put in place. (Query: The New York City Opera had a devoted fan base following their revivals of rare Rossini and Handel works. Why is the new management determined to snub them?)
But there are problems for anyone who wants to stage this opera in either version, and it’s not just because the number of soloists is so huge, or because you have to part the Red Sea at the end of Act IV, or because a pyramid at the end of Act I turns into an erupting volcano. And it’s not just because you need an ophicleide in the orchestra, though it was rather a shock to see it over there on stage right, looking like a sexually aroused baritone horn, and you get snaps from me if you recognized it. (I didn’t.)
No: The problem with Moses is the plot and the characters. The plot is thinly taken from the Book of Exodus; most of the characters and most of the drama have nothing whatever to do with it. This was a problem for Cecil B. DeMille, too, of course; he fleshed out his Ten Commandments with viandage from a couple of popular novels on the subject. Rossini’s librettists were treading more dangerous ground even thanHollywood: Fernando I in Naples and Charles X inParis were deeply Catholic, deeply reactionary rulers, and anything that smacked of irreligion could cause dire offense. Therefore Moses can barely be characterized at all, much less humanized.
Equally dangerous was anything that might imply that absolute kingship could go wrong. Rossini’s Pharaoh had to be a figure of unquestioned nobility, almost the equal of Moses – failing only at the last to do the right thing (despite his wife’s pleas and his own misgivings) due to the threats of an implacable polytheistic priest and the romantic frustrations of his son, Aménophis, who is in love with Moses’ niece, Anaïs. We are supposed to feel some tension about whether Pharaoh will stick to his bargain with Moses or succumb, but if we’ve glanced at the Bible (or DeMille), we know the answer. Seas don’t split just to create a scenic bypass, you know.
The trouble with all these extraneous characters, few of them figured in the Bible, is that they are thin as cardboard. Their emotions are rote. They have no psychology; there is nothing to analyze. Rossini attempts to solve this with a marvelously various series of duets in which father and son debate duty (to Egypt) vs. love, mother and daughter debate duty (to Israel) vs. love, mother and son discuss love vs. religion and, of course, the lovers debate Egypt vs. Israel vs. love, twice. (The father-son duet will be familiar; Rossini borrowed it from Armida. It sounds different sung by tenor and bass.) These duets don’t work as drama, they do not build or resolve tension (compare Semiramide or, for that matter, Il Barbiere (1816)), but they pass the time gorgeously.
Acts can then end with everyone howling at once, and the chorus is summoned for any emotions of a Biblical cast: Horror at finding the land in darkness, wonder at the delightful rites of Isis, sublime ecstasy in the miracles of God, a prayer of course (with harp). It does not add up but it’s fun while it lasts, and it lasts several hours. The entire extravaganza impresses as a basic structure on which, two years later, Rossini would hang his final grand opera, Tell. Tell has far more personality, steadier motivation, a more coherent score (though can arrows and apples and burning mountain chalets really compete with an exploding pyramid?). But if you hear a good Moïse et Pharaon, you will readily appreciate its process towards the grand choral confrontations, the awkward romance, the final bursting touch of the miraculous that are so thrilling in Tell.
Enough analysis! Time we got to the good stuff: Who sang what and how well. Among the principals, first of all, one should mention the hosts of the occasion, the Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra under James Bagwell. I suspect the Paris Opéra had a heartier string sound, but I doubt their winds and their chorus were as disciplined as the ones at Carnegie. The great chorus of terror in the darkness that opens Act II (that, even more impressively, opens Mosè in Egitto’s curtain-rise), was stirring; the prayer luscious, the powerhouse climaxes finely wrought.
James Morris, who began his career with bel canto roles nearly forty years ago, returned to one, Moïse, with a voice that had seemingly been crying out too long in the wilderness. There were hints of a wobble. Luckily nothing much in the coloratura or grand declamatory line was demanded of him and the dignity of many a Wotan sat on him well. We might not have noticed this was less than a top-flight performance if his opponent, Pharaoh, had not been sung by Kyle Ketelson, whose sonorous bass filled the house with authority and gracious line worthy of a Nineteenth Dynasty monument. Had Rossini known such a Pharaoh was on offer, he might have given the character something of tragic stature to sing.
Eric Cutler, as Aménophis, after a slow start and some stretch for high notes, settled after the break into some really beautiful singing (French rep has always been his forte). There was genuine bite in his frustrated longing for Anaïs; he was the only performer in this concert actually acting his role. Michele Angelini’s graceful tenor was well displayed as Moses’ brother. Joe Damon Chappell sang the wicked Egyptian priest with neither force nor quality.
Angela Meade, singing Pharaoh’s secretly converted queen, had the same difficulty warming to her task that affected the early scenes of her Anna Bolena – and, in this piece, fewer later scenes to show off when she was warm, though there were some of the soft, golden legato phrases that are her specialty.
Marina Rebeka was the big news among the ladies. She played Anaïs, the nice Jewish girl who spurns a prince’s passion, and she did it with a huge, brilliant sound if not much variety of color, plus a lot of well articulated but oddly propelled fioriture that reminded me of Cristina Deutekom. It was an exciting performance of a big role in which she won European acclaim in Salzburg under Muti last year, but it left me puzzled as to what sort of repertory would be her ideal career path. Ms. Rebeka made her Met debut this fall as Donna Anna; I spent much of last night kicking myself for missing it. (She will return to it this spring.)
Ginger Costa-Jackson, who specializes in small but significant roles, gave us another: Miriam, Moses’ sister and Anaïs’ mother, with a gorgeous, utterly maternal sound belied by her looks and svelte figure. I’d like to hear her try a full-sized role, though at the end of the night for a moment she seemed to have miscalculated how much breath she actually had to give us.
Now I’d like to go back to Mosè in Egitto and compare the two.
Photos by Erin Baiano