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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Mosè in Egitto
opera in three acts (1818)
Moses - Riccardo Zanellato
Pharaoh - Alex Esposito
Amaltea - Olga Senderskaya
Osiris - Dmitry Korchak
Elcia - Sonia Ganassi
Aaron - Yijie Shi
Mambre - Enea Scala
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Roberto Abbado
Graham Vick (stage director)
rec. Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, August 2011
Sound format: 2.0LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTS
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 - 1.78:1
Subtitles: German, English, French
Region: 0 All Regions
OPUS ARTE OA1093D [150:00 + 20:00 (bonus)]

This release from 2011’s Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro brings us one of the composer’s finest serious works in a surprising new garb. As with many Pesaro releases, it’s the first recording of a new critical edition of the opera. Even if you know the work Graham Vick’s striking production will force you to see it in a new light. His big idea is to set the opera in a modern Middle Eastern dictatorship, thus using it to comment on the modern troubles of the Middle East, a potent theme for our time, as well as the evils of religious fundamentalism in general. Pharaoh seems to be in the Gaddafi vein of military dictators, while the Jews are an oppressed minority, compelled to clean the throne room which takes the centre of the action. Both sides are capable of injustices: the Egyptians wield Uzis as they raid the Jewish quarters and the Israelites douse the Egyptian palace with oil and use suicide bomb vests to threaten their captors. There is no Red Sea at the climax of the third act. Instead the great wall at the back of the set, which looks strikingly like the West Bank Separation Barrier, opens up for the Israelites to escape. When the Egyptians try to follow them an Israeli tank is revealed, blasting them to kingdom come. There is a suggestion of reconciliation in the final tableau, as the Israeli tank driver offers a bar of chocolate to a young Egyptian boy, but the audience has just seen the boy strap on a suicide vest under his jacket.
It’s a striking and often exciting way of looking at the work, though I found it as frustrating as I found it interesting. Vick’s determination to be even-handed means that in the end we sympathise with no-one. Doubtless this was his intent, but it meant that ultimately I found little to invest in with the main characters. Admittedly, that’s something that Rossini doesn’t help with: both Moses and Pharaoh are pretty unattractive characters, the one speaking permanently in angry declamation while the other perpetually goes back on his word. I ultimately found Vick’s staging a little alienating, though, as if it was too interested in its own clever idea and less so in Rossini’s work.
The other problem with the staging is more significant. Vick stages the opera in the Arena Adriatica basketball stadium, continuing his fine tradition of work in Birmingham with staging operas in unusual locations. He uses a complex multi-level stage, but he also stages some scenes, particularly choral entrances, in different parts of the auditorium. This must have made it thrilling to be in the audience, but it means that the production doesn’t transfer across to the screen particularly successfully. On the stage itself there is always a lot going on, but this means that the camera is never sure of where to look. For example, during one of Pharaoh’s speeches someone is spray-painting a wall with anti-Egyptian graffiti, and the camera repeatedly cuts away from the main action to show us the side-show. I can understand the need to show it, but for me it just became irritating, and that’s only one example of many. It’s a problem with having more than one thing going on at once on stage, and the use of the auditorium is just as problematic on screen. Osiris and Elcia’s first love duet takes place somewhere in the auditorium, but it looks boxed in compared with the action on stage. Furthermore, Vick creates a full-scale refugee camp which the camera keeps cutting to, but where is it? I presume it’s somewhere in the auditorium, but you never see it in the context of the rest of the staging. For all we know it could be backstage somewhere.
The other issue with filming the opera in a basketball stadium is that, with the best will in the world, the sound comes across as boxy and limited. That’s a pity, but it’s the only black mark against what is an otherwise very well sung production. Riccardo Zanellato thunders away convincingly in the rather thankless role of Moses. He uses his big voice to great effect, getting fully inside the larger than life declamations. Vick explains his visual similarity to Osama bin Laden by the fact that he is an archetype for fundamentalists as a whole, suggesting that his war against the Egyptians closely resembles a jihad-style holy war. He is well contrasted with the more lyrical tones of Alex Esposito’s Pharaoh. He is by far the more attractive of the two basses and he uses his instrument to gorgeous effect, even while condemning the Israelites or renouncing his decrees. He is at his finest in his Act 1 aria condemning Moses, but his frequent contribution to the ensembles lends a real touch of class to the proceedings. Dmitry Korchak is thrilling as Osiris, the Egyptian prince in love with the Hebrew Elcia. His light, agile voice is exactly right for this sort of repertoire and he sings with delicacy of tone combined with strength in the coloratura. Sonia Ganassi is slightly histrionic as his lover, the acoustic doing little to flatter her, but she tones down the fireworks for some wonderful pleading at the end of Act 2, as she offers to forego Osiris to enable him to take the throne. Olga Senderskaya is a darker, more husky presence as Queen Amaltea, but she is thrilling in the coloratura. Her distinctive vocal colour adds greatly to the opera’s palette. Like Korchak, Yijie Shi is definitely a Rossini tenor to look out for. His vocal colour is similar to Korchak’s. He makes the most of a rather ungrateful role, ringing with thrilling intensity in contrast to the dark utterances of Moses. Essential, however, is the contribution of the chorus, so important in this opera with its large scale ensembles. They do a great job with Rossini’s multi-layered music, even allowing for the limitations of the recorded sound. Roberto Abbado leads both them and the orchestra with certainty and determination.
This film will always be controversial for its staging, but we aren’t exactly spoiled for choice for Mosè on DVD. If you have Claudio Scimone’s (still excellent) CD account of the opera then this is a good way to supplement it. Equally, if you want one of Rossini’s finest serious operas with a visually challenging accompaniment then you could do a lot worse than this DVD. It helps that the whole thing is available on only one disc and comes with an accompanying film that explains the background to the production and, more informatively, discusses the structure of the opera itself.
Simon Thompson 

See also review by Robert J Farr