Cher Public

Behold, his mighty score!

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

  • Very nice review, thanks.

    Favourite line: “It does not add up but it’s fun while it lasts, and it lasts several hours.”

  • lottachatte

    Slightly off topic,
    I am currently enthralled with Rossini’s Stabat Mater.
    Just beautiful with Orgonasova, Bartoli, Gimenez, and Scandiuzzi
    led by Myung-whun Chung

    • armerjacquino

      The recent Pappano recording is pretty special, too.

  • aulus agerius

    Thanks for the review; I wish I had been there. Too bad about the exclusion of the ballet music which is very charming. I first heard this opera in the production from La Scala (2004?)with Filianoti [first time I heard him and I went WOW!] Schrott, Abrazakov, Ganassi et al. under Muti. Personally I don’t care for Cutler’s current timbre -- sounds ‘reedy’ to me.

  • Joe Conda

    It would doux if les images had captions…

  • sterlingkay

    I was there as well-- very good review. Ms. Meade is going to have a very tough time having the elite career she deserves because of the way she looks. She desperately needs some gay friends…….what a schlub…

    • brooklynpunk


      Gay-or straight-- she is in need of SOME brutally honest friends--or a mirror--PRONTO!

      AND, it isn’t the poundage, per-se--if Stephanie Blythe can come across as being a VERY attractive foxxy gal, in person--so can Ms. Meade (I’ve seen Meade a number of times at gatherings, and SCHLUB hits it, spot on)

      • Camille

        She needs, in brief, “What Not to Wear” to descend on her and make her over. They are fricking amazing with what they do to help women. It largely boils down to self-esteem issues.

    • Camille

      You took the words right away from me — she needs some gay friends.

      Oh dear, what is that girl thinking wearing a dress like that? The hair? Omigod, I can’t believe someone has not yet taken her in hand to do something. You can “style” it, no matter what the poundage. She needs a stylist, and a hairdresser. She needs help, and she needs it NOW! I am frankly at a loss to think how she could live in New York City, been engaged in as many high profile singing engagements as she thus far has, and still look like the picture above.

      Presentation is very very very important and without it many good talents go begging and with it many mediocre talents can write their ticket. It’s just the world we live in and it won’t change. So sorry.

      • Buster

        In my experience, a diva finding her form cannot be forced by anyone -- it just happens, or not.

        Sometimes it takes for ages (Kiri te Kanawa, Ruth Ziesak), but that only adds to the pleasure once the transformation has taken place.

      • OpinionatedNeophyte

        You know what the biggest issue is for Meade? That hair! Its limp as steamed rice noodles and does nothing to properly frame her round face. Jessye and Measha have already written the book on the importance of big, framing hair for BBWs and Meade needs to order a copy, STAT. Course, she lacks those ladies wonderful bone structure.

  • Will

    Miss Costa-Jackson sang Carmen at Glimmerglass last summer with mention in her bio that it was her first full length role anywhere — and at age 22, please note. Aided by the intimacy of the venue, she did pretty well, and that’s neither sarcasm nor condescension. Carmen has defeated many experienced mezzos in mid-career at big houses like the MET (where a great artist like Waltraud Meier and an OK artist like Agnes Baltsa had little success in the role).

    • armerjacquino

      I’d only heard of her before because she is one of the regular targets for Nerva Nelli’s vibes. I have no idea why- can anyone explain?

      • armerjacquino

        Or ‘jibes’, even.

        • Nerva Nelli

          Looks 9 (if you like anorexics)

          Voice 4

          The perfect Gelb singer! And seemingly many here cannot ABIDE

          Interseting tombre but certainly showed that she lacks teh unified registers for bel canto.

        • Nerva Nelli

          Looks 9 (if you like anorexics)

          Voice 4

          The perfect Gelb singer! And seemingly many TRULY nellie queen here cannot ABIDE someone large in their field of vision-- so let them be condemned to a lifetime of listening to Poplavskaya and Costa-Jackson and Erdmann *trying* to sing.

          GCJ has kind of an interesting timbre, but certainly showed in MOISE that she lacks the unified registers for bel canto.

          • Bianca Castafiore

            She’s 24, you bitter ancient monster. Have you looked in your cristal ball and already mapped what she’ll sound like in 10, 20 years?

          • Nerva Nelli

            “Have you looked in your cristal (sic) ball and already mapped what she’ll sound like in 10, 20 years?”


          • Bianca Castafiore

            “Interseting (sic) tombre (sic)”

          • Nerva Nelli

            Sullied, Poisoned fiore--

            My “draft” posted itself before I could correct the typos, which I then proceeded to do.

            I am still trying to figure out why we should cheer someone who’s 24 and being given opportunities (INCLUDING Mercedes at a theater the size of the Met) for which she is not ready vocally.

          • Bianca Castafiore

            If you can sic me, I can sic you too, Bitter Nellie.

          • Nerva Nelli

            Sic transit Gloria Davy!

            As for Bitter Nellie (sic):


          • Camille

            Bianca, Nerva is my Dea Tutelar, no bitter ancient monster, please.

            Nerva, Bianca is pure as the Edelweiss.

            Please, ladies, I love you both.
            Refrain from biting one another’s necks.

          • Bianca Castafiore

            Camille!!!!! Nerva and I are sisters, we are both fictitious divas --like all sisters, we fight, we pull hair, but we always make up. No worries there. Mille baci a te.

          • Camille

            Very good. Mother loves you both, you know.

            And I steadfastly did NOT listen to even one morsel of today’s Road to Linda, as if I wanted to, I just want you to know. A bit of the Abduction, though, I did listen in on before my flight. Mariella Devia was a Deva!

            Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle en ce miroir!!!!!!!

          • Nerva Nelli

            I hold no grudge against Bianca.

            In fact, I feel provincial “utilite” sopranos are to be congratulated on their dedication… brava, carina!

          • Bianca Castafiore

            Nerva, io son il Rossignol di Milano!!!!!
            Don’t you forget that. And the word is utility. Sic you!!!!

          • Camille

            ormai, BASTA!

            I will post that damned cat duet of Rossini if you don’t learn to play together quietly, girls.

          • Bianca Castafiore

            Nerva is unhappy since no asteroids have been named for her. Provincial? Pas moi.

          • Nerva Nelli

            I am astonished you have not noticed the French word “utilité” (in my experience accent marks don’t work here,but I’ll try again) when doggedly fulfilling your cover contracts as Nella, Ortlinde and the Overseer in Limoges and Toulon.

          • Nerva Nelli

            Asteroids are bits of failed planets; planets revolve around TRUE stars. How right they were to single *you* out, dear, for an asteroid-naming!

          • Bianca Castafiore

            Nerva, you witty hag! Just remember, an asteroid is a CELESTIAL being, that you can gaze at from your earthly lair. Not to mention that Hollywood has finally recognized my beauty, charm and talent, with a major director making a movie about MY LIFE, coming soon to a movie theater near your cave, schatzie!!!!!! Tootles!!!!!

          • Nerva Nelli

            Dearest 16th-billed Bianca--

            There are Celestial Beings; and then there is something else out there:


          • Camille

            you two incorrigible felines asked for it:

            scratch away until neither one has any fur left and only one eye in a socket, left dangling!!!!

  • Though three seasons apart and worlds apart in the terms of performance Opera di Roma gave us both the Napoletano and Parisian versions of the Rossini take on Moses. The former has gone from my mind musically and all I can remember is that all the Egyptians were painted blue and Michelle Petrusi almost fell 60 ft to the stage floor while ascending a pyramid into the flies! The Moïse et Pharaon was another story -- Muti in the pit and a strong -- well stronger than the Mose -- cast on stage with an interesting production. Cutler sang the Aménophis and was having a rough night of it. I posted an item about it at the time I have the La Scala DVD from the first production Muti conducted of it and the old Philips recording of the Mose has been in my library since it was issued. And I must admit that I’m a little bit like Macheath could be quite happy with either were other dear charmer away.

  • @Joe Conda:

    Top picture: Cedric Hardwicke and Anne Baxter
    2: Maestro Bagwell
    3: Costa-Jackson; Morris
    4: Rebeka; Cutler
    5: Meade; Ketelson

    Willym: Snaps for quoting Beggars’ Opera!

    Meade’s affect is unfortunate, but I was impressed with her ability to handle herself on stage in Anna Bolena (and look pretty good in it). What will deprive her of the career she deserves is the time she takes to warm up and unite her pretty upper register with the warm chest register that ought to support it. IMHO.

    The ballet music was probably cut for the same reason this LONG opera was done with just one intermission: Carnegie has an overtime cutoff of 11p.m. Pity.

    • manou

      Excusez-moi: top picture is Rossini and Anne Baxter.

  • Camille

    I liked the background analysis on this review very much, probably more than I would have cared for a lot of the singing at this particular performance.

    Always interesting, edifying, and educational, Mr. Yohalem.

  • Bianca Castafiore

    Caro Hans, very nice review and analysis. I was there as well. You folks need to cut Meade some slack. Her dress wasn’t too bad, although her coiffure could’ve been better -- but the same could’ve been said of Cutler. I don’t think this was a good part for her — it’s too short, she didn’t warm up enough, her top notes were a bit shrill. The public gave her a big hand anyway, she has lots of fans here. I agree with what you said, in Bolena, she moved and acted well. I loved Angelini, a very good surprise, and cute as heck. Rebeka seems to sing things like Mimi, Micaela and Adina; as I said, she should graduate soon to more of the Gheorghiu/Poplavskaya rep, even take on Trovatore, Norma, Bolena, Amelia (SB). The voice is big enough, and she can handle the fioriture. I didn’t get Deutekom at all. I liked Costa as well; the NYT reviewed her Carmen and said she’s from Italy; really? with a name like Ginger? I want to see/hear more of her. Lovely to look as well. She reminds me a bit od Sandra Piques-Eddy, another young, lovely mezzo who sang Lola at the Met. Where is she now? And finally I loved the orchestral music that ends the work, it was fabulous.

    We need more Rossini; when is the Met going to do Tell, Ermione, Siege/Assedio/Maometto, etc.?

    • oedipe

      Ginger Costa-Jackson is Italian-American and was born in Sicily.

    • semira mide

      Let’s hope the Met doesn’t attempt Tell, Ermione, ete. until it is willing to acquire first-rate Rossini singers and a first-rate Rossini conductor. Do you want a repeat of the Armida debacle?

      • Bianca Castafiore

        Good point, Semira, but who would you cast in Tell today? Btw , can you believe that fat Debbie even sang this part in her earlier days?

        • Often admonished

          I doubt there’s anyone around now who could fill the MET as Arnold. It was a stretch for Martinelli.

          • Camille

            Johan Botha could certainly fill the house, not necessarily as Arnold, however….

  • balabanov11

    Meade’s problem isn’t that she needs time to “warm up”. Her main technical problem was perfectly in evidence in this performance -- she has been coached to manufacture and overproduce her voice in the middle and low, and take that overproduction up to A above the staff. While she can muscle out a viscerally exciting sound at forte, the sound gets thick, and her passage work gets slower and sloppier as a result. In the sections of her role where she had to pull back her sound in order to negotiate fast coloratura or high notes, it was a much better, clearer, livelier production -- her voice simply isn’t as large as she thinks it is, or has been told it is, or has been coached to emulate. While she was able to do a beautiful piano C# in this performance, and still has a decent trill at mp, it’s obvious that her can’t go much above that anymore, and this was a girl who only 2 years ago had a useable high E. She’s almost a textbook example of someone who is being really badly coached technically, and is showing the results of that too quickly. I don’t see a very long career in the making here.

  • Bosah

    Thanks for this review. I enjoyed it.

    I hope for the best for Meade; she deserves it. But I worry.

  • Bianca Castafiore

    And btw, I noticed the ophicleide since I was perusing the instrumentalists listed in the program, that was a rare thing, huh?