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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Moïse et Pharaon - Grand opera in four acts (1827)
Libretto by Luigi Balocchi and Joseph-Etienne de Jouy, based on Andre Leone Tottola’s libretto for Mosé in Egitto.
First performed at the Paris Opéra, 26 March 1827
Moïse, Hebrew lawgiver, Ildar Abdrazakov (bass); Pharaon, King of Egypt, Erwin Schrott (bass); Aménophis, Pharaoh’s son, Giuseppe Filianoti (ten); Éliézer, Moïse’s brother, Tomislav Muzek (ten); Osiride, High Priest of Isis, Giorgio Giuseppini (bass); Sinaïde, Pharaoh’s wife, Sonia Ganassi (mez); Marie, Moses’ sister, Nino Surguladze (sop); Anaï, Marie’s daughter, Barbara Frittoli (sop)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
Recorded live at the Teatro Arcimboldo, Milan, 21 December 2003
Sound format, DD 5.1. DTS 5.1. LPCM stereo. Picture format 16:9
Introductory essay in English, German and French
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French and Spanish
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Rossini's and his wife returned to Paris in August 1824 from a visit to London where the composer had presented several of his operas and also earned considerable remuneration by singing and playing at musical occasions organised by the English aristocracy. In Brighton, where the Court was in session, he sang duets with King George IV. In Paris, Rossini was appointed Director of the Théâtre Italien. His contract required him to present productions of his own works, and that of other composers, as well as writing new works in French for presentation at The Opéra (Théâtre de 1'Académie Royale de Musique). The works in French were a little slow in coming, as Rossini needed to grapple with the prosody of the language and re-align his own compositional style towards that of his new hosts. He particularly noted the Parisians' taste for big choral scenes and spectacular tableaux. Before any operas in French was the unavoidable duty of a work to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in Reims Cathedral in early June 1825. Called Il viaggio a Reims (a journey to Reims) it was composed to an Italian libretto and presented at the Théâtre Italien on 19 June. It was hugely successful in three sold-out performances after which Rossini withdrew it, considering it purely a pièce d'occasion. Rossini later reused five of the nine of the numbers in Le Comte Ory, (see The operas of Rossini) his only comic opera in French.

For his first work in French, Rossini established a tradition, later followed by Donizetti and Verdi, of revising a proven earlier work to a new libretto. The first of two such revisions was Le Siège de Corinthe derived from his Maometto II of six years earlier. It was premiered to massive acclaim at The Opéra on 9 October 1826 and went on to clock up no fewer than one hundred performances within thirteen years. The Paris staging was lavish with the final tableau depicting the sacked and burning Corinth being both viscerally and visually thrilling and horrifying. Francis Toye wrote 'with this work Grand Opera was born'. Moïse et Pharaon, or Le Passage de la Mer Rouge, Rossini's second work for The Opéra followed six months later on 6 March 1827. It was received with even greater appreciation than that accorded Le Siège de Corinthe. The work proved so popular that it stayed in the repertory until 1865, a highly unusual phenomenon in the nineteenth century. It is derived from the composer’s Italian language Mosé in Egito, which was already in the repertory of the Théâtre Italien when Rossini put up this rival to it. He avoided the pitfalls of a stilted translation by acquiring a new libretto by Luigi Balocchi and Etienne de Jouy that, while drawing on the Italian one by Tottola, gave new names to some of the characters and expanded the opera into four acts. For the necessary ballet music in act three, Rossini used that in Armida. Although Rossini reused a lot of the music from Mosé in Egito, his detail additions and alterations affected every aspect of the work. In all the opera seria composed for Naples, including Mosé in Egito, he had cultivated a style rich in coloratura, so as to satisfy the virtuosity of the singers on the company’s roster. For Paris he reduced the vocal ornamentation in favour of clear melodic lines and greatly increased the role of the chorus (representing the Children of Israel).

In Moïse et Pharaon the theatrically effective plague of darkness covering Egypt is moved from the first act to the second. After a brief prelude and chorus (D1 Chs 2-3) the opera now begins with Moïse encouraging the oppressed Israelites (D1 Ch. 4). Moïse’s brother Éliézer returns to the Israelites accompanied by Moïse’s sister Marie and her daughter Anaï. Éliézer tells the Israelites that Pharaoh, at the urging of his wife Sinaïde (a convert to Judaism) and also from fear of the Jewish God, will let them go, although it is against the advice of the High Priest Osiride. Pharaoh’s son, Aménophis, loves Anaï whom he has met as a slave in his father's court and she returns his love. He seeks to prevent the Israelites leaving. Moïse threatens Egypt with dreadful plagues. Despite this, Pharaon revokes his permission and promptly, during the Act I finale, fire rains down from heaven and a ‘pyramid turns into a volcano’. In this staging by Luca Ronconi with sets by Gianni Quaranta the fire emerges from what appears to be a giant church organ at the rear centre of the stage (D1 Chs 19-20). Other more unusual effects include what appear ro be mitred bishops. That is not to imply that the production carries any producer lumber or idiosyncratic concept. On the contrary the story is told with forthright simplicity, the general sets, staging and costumes being appropriate. With the plague of darkness engulfing the Egyptians act two has Moïse’s great scene and invocation to Jehovah, so beloved of all great basses (D1 Chs 23-26), and the darkness is lifted as Pharaon again agrees to let the Jews go. He further asks his son to marry a princess of his own faith but Aménophis is not interested. In Act three the obligatory ballet takes the form of ceremonial "Egyptian" dances before the Temple of Isis (D 2 Chs.5-7). The High Priest Osiride commands the Jews to worship Isis, whereupon the Nile turns blood red and locusts descend on the Egyptians. In Act four Aménophis, for love of Anai, is ready to renounce the throne and release the chained Jews (D 2 Chs. 13-14). But when Anai sees her compatriots in chains and Moïse tells her she must choose between love and obedience, she chooses her people. Once more Aménophis vows vengeance. Led by Moïse the Israelites pray to God and miraculously their chains fall from them. In the final scene including a storm (D 2 Ch. 24), a Rossini speciality, Moïse parts the waters of the Red Sea and leads the Jews safely over whilst the pursuing Egyptians drown (D2 Chs 23-25). The production does this scene in a very cardboard and mundane manner, particularly considering earlier pyrotechnic effects and all the equipment of modern theatres. At the premiere of the original Italian production of Mosé in Egito there were similar disappointments despite the then state of the art stage equipment at the recently refurbished San Carlo. This equipment which had been able to represent the lovers Armida and Rinaldo descending on a cloud that becomes her chariot and, as she waves her wand, turns into her castle, could not manage a coup de théâtre for the parting of the Red Sea. Perhaps when La Scala returns home from the Teatro Arcimboldo the production team will revisit this rather disappointing facet of what is a very convincing and satisfying production. The video producer focuses on appropriate groups and individuals rather than the wider scene to the overall benefit of the drama.

In any recording or production of this work, or its Italian progenitor, a massive burden rests on the singing and acting of the role of Moïse if the performance is to be a success. In this La Scala production the Bashkirian bass Ildar Abdrazakov has an appropriate stage persona and a lean musical bass voice of appropriate nobility and grandeur. His voice is evenly produced and secure across its range. (D1 Ch. 4, 23-27, and D2 Chs. 8-11 in particular). In a perfect world he would have a little more roundness to his tone, but with perfect diction I would be pleased to hear him in any of the world’s great opera houses. Most importantly of all Abdrazakov uses his vocal skills and prowess to convey a real character in all its facets. By vocal nuance and body language as well as words he conveys what Moïse is determined to achieve. The role of Pharaoh is sung by the young bass Erwin Schrott a late replacement for the indisposed Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. Erwin Schrott’s voice is steady and true. He looks far too young for the role of father to Aménophis and husband to Sinaïde. If he doesn’t quite have the vocal clout that D’Arcangelo’s more mature voice would have brought to the role, the confrontation with Moïse is still a considerable one between two fine singers (D 1 Chs 23-26). As Pharaoh’s son Aménophis, the young looking and lithe voiced Giuseppe Filianoti is convincing in his acting and ardent in his singing. In the other principal tenor role of Éliézer, Tomislav Muzek sings with virile tone and acts convincingly whether bringing good news or supporting Moïse. Of the women the singing laurels go to Sonia Ganassi as Pharaons wife Sinaïde. Her powerful tones and even legato are always welcome. Although her headdress might have restricted other interpreters, she is able to convey the meaning of her singing by a wide tonal palette and judicious body stance. As Anaï, Barbara Frittoli cannot disguise her age compared with that of her lover in terms of visual impact. Her singing is another matter. Like Ganassi she has a wide range of vocal colour particularly in the upper voice where many sopranos often go thinner. She is particularly effective in the more lyrical parts of the unfolding drama and has sufficient heft to ride the orchestra when called to do so. Of course, with Muti on the rostrum there are no interpolated high notes that the composer would not recognise. As always, he brings carefully prepared and scholarly application to his interpretation that encompasses all the rhythmic drive, allied to careful phrasing and gradation of dynamics, demanded by Rossini’s mature work as one would hope to meet. If I have left comment on the chorus until last it is not by accident. As I noted earlier, Rossini in reworking Mosé in Egitto as Moïse et Pharaon intended a greatly increased role for the chorus representing the Children of Israel. In what appears to be enhanced chorus numbers the singers of La Scala are as well disciplined as I have ever heard them. In this form they are world-beaters. Add the clear acoustic of the Teatro Arcimboldo, infinitely preferable to that of the home house, and which benefits soloists and orchestra as well as chorus and the whole has major aural impact when played in the home through quality hi-fi equipment. The excellent lighting of the stage also allows detailed definition in the visual picture. To round off an excellent issue the booklet has good notation of chapter division, each with introductory lines and singers given. There is a good introductory essay and a rather too brief synopsis.

This DVD of the 2003 La Scala production fills a major gap in the availability of Rossini's works in the catalogue. Although lacking Francophone singers, and having the odd idiosyncratic stage effect, the recording provides a vivid and well-sung performance of a work that deserves greater circulation. It is a very welcome and highly recommended issue.

Robert J Farr



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