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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Mosè in Egitto - Azione tragico-sacra in three acts (1819)
Riccardo Zanellato – Mosè; Alex Esposito – Faraone; Olga Senderskaya – Amaltea; Dmitry Korchak – Osiride; Sonia Ganassi – Elcia; Yijie Shi – Aronne; Enea Scala – Mambre; Chiara Amarù - Amenofi
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Communale di Bologna/Roberto Abbado
rec. Arena Adriatica, Pesaro, Italy 2011
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Surround; Picture Format: 16:9, 1080i; Region: Worldwide
Subtitles: English, German, French
Reviewed in surround.
OPUS ARTE/UNITEL CLASSICA OA BD7112D [opera: 150:00; extras: 20:00]

It needs to be made quite clear what the viewer has here. This is Rossini's first version of the opera as presented in 1818 and then with revisions the following year, 1819. It is not the later radically reworked version for Paris in 1827. The 1818-19 version was presented at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in 2011 specifically because the same director, Graham Vick, had already done the more frequently performed Paris version at Pesaro 14 years earlier.
Why say all this? Well Graham Vick has returned to the original with original ideas to match. Were this a CD we would not know, but this is a very clearly filmed performance made at the Pesaro Rossini Festival in front of a live audience. All the unique flavour of Vick's direction is there for the viewer to enjoy, or at least take in. This has to be one of the most political pieces of opera direction. It is set in the present day Middle East with the Pharaoh and his wife looking suspiciously like the King and Queen of Jordan, a chorus of very modern Israelis and Palestinians, and a Moses bearing a strong resemblance to Osama bin Laden. During the opening scene, there is no overture, members of the chorus circulate amongst the audience in blood-stained clothing and carrying posters of deceased relatives. It is all very close to the regular newsreels we have had from the disputed lands of the Middle East for far too long. Characters enter the action from many parts of the arena including the back. The stage itself has several tiers looking much like a mixture of a modern palace, an underground car park and a refugee settlement. Parts are bombed out. Many a suicide vest is to be seen along with the usual paraphernalia of modern opera, military dress and assault rifles. It is not hard to see why this approach to Mosè in Egitto makes dramatic sense and the viewers must be left to decide for themselves what to make of it all.
For the reviewer however, one has to ask whether it helps or hinders the music. For this reviewer it definitely distracted from Rossini on two levels. Most significantly the staging is busy and detailed and so disturbingly full of political commentary that the story-line conceived by Rossini recedes far into the background. Graham Vick must have set out to make this rare work 'significant'. He has succeeded. The other level of distraction is the Arena Adriatica. This all-purpose stadium is proudly described on its website as suitable for audiences from one thousand to eleven thousand. It most definitely is not an auditorium by design. This has resulted in many microphones being necessary to capture all the participants spread around the space. The orchestra sounds from the front, the soloists are also at the front even when they visibly are not. The chorus is all over the space but also sounds from the front. The resulting sound is rather compressed and distorted, not in the old-fashioned sense but in that it misrepresents what orchestras and voices sound like. It sounds manufactured, which it is, and worse it sounds just a bit gritty and unpleasant. Leading lady Olga Senderskaya suffers particularly since I doubt she sounds so strained and edgy in reality. Maybe a less critical listener might not mind, but by the high standards normally to be found on DTS HD Master Audio sound tracks this is a poor example. I suspect the engineers have done the best they could with a nearly impossible job. In this case the video wins easily over the audio because the picture is spectacular.
The very prolonged applause at the end is understandable because it must have been quite an experience. By allowing it to remain on the disc against the credits we can feel as if we are there. Audience enthusiasm is justified for the orchestra, the intricate set and all the singers make a splendid job of this superb. There are many dramatic ensembles plus the cast have to be very athletic to progress around the stage. The two 'making of' documentaries are well worth watching for a change and go a long way to explain the reasons for this radical look at a Rossini opera. Miraculously, there is no music over the menus and the disc defaults to surround and English subtitles. There is no track information in the booklet but the disc chapters are very logically displayed allowing access at all the obvious points. Your reviewer felt he needed a chance to see or hear a less relevant production to drag Rossini back into view.

Dave Billinge

see also reviews of DVD version by Simon Thompson & Robert J Farr