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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868) Mosè in Egitto (1818)
Faraone – Andrew Foster-Williams
Amaltea – Mandy Fredrich
Osiride – Sunnyboy Dladla
Elcia – Clarissa Costanzo
Mambre – Taylan Reinhard
Mosè – Goran Jurić
Aronne – Matteo Macchione
Amenofi – Dara Saviona
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Wiener Symphoniker / Enrique Mazzola
rec. 2017, Bregenz Festival, Austria C MAJOR 744808 DVD [150 mins]
Rossini wrote Mosè in Egitto in 1818, selecting a biblical story in order to get around the Church’s prohibition on opera performances during Lent. Rossini initially called the work an oratorio. It enjoyed great success after its Naples premier. When Rossini moved to Paris, he revised the work significantly for a French production as Moïse et Pharaon – four acts instead of three, French-language text, a substantial ballet – and replaced with his own music bits he had farmed out to others (Michele Carafa had written an aria for Pharaoh).
Revivals in modern times have favored the Italian version, and aggressive stage directors have tried hard to make their productions relevant, rather than staging slow-moving biblical pageants. A 2011 Pesaro production turned the ancient Israelites into modern Palestinians, a clever if inevitably controversial choice.
This new production for the Bregenz Festival attempts to link the opera to our times by emphasizing that the ancient Israelites were refugees. But Rossini was not interested in actual Middle-Eastern politics. This grand biblical tale was merely a story to keep opera going during Lent. This production’s interest in refugees is politically worthy, but dramatically dubious. Pharaoh wants to keep the Hebrews from leaving Egypt, which seems the opposite of ethnic cleansing.
Central to this production, directed by Lotte de Beer, is the Hotel Modern theatre group, which uses tiny puppets and filmed objects to illustrate the story. This is done by posting members of Hotel Modern on the stage among the singers, where the Hotel Modernists move about, observing, touching, and occasionally poking the singers as they try to go about their work of performing Rossini. Stage business constantly intrudes upon moments of serenity or musical drama. At one low point, Clarissa Costanzo, in the part of Elcia, is forced to sing while a Hotel Modern person waves his arms in front of her. The result is certainly distancing, and seems a visual symbol of Lotte de Beer’s apparent disdain for musicians. I am usually fairly tolerant of directorial shenanigans in opera, following the theory that even a half-backed production is acceptable if it brings great music to the stage and to audiences. But this Mosè in Egitto is not a version I want to watch again.
This is a pity, because the fine musicians involved in this farrago deserve better. Andrew Foster-Williams is a florid and compelling Pharaoh. His Act 2 duet with Sunnyboy Dladla (as his son, Osiride) is a highlight. Goran Jurić is stalwart but effective in the rather thankless part of Moses. As Amaltea, Mandy Fredrich is full-voiced and stirring in her Act 2 aria. The Act 2 quartet is arresting, and the opera’s most famous moment, the prayer in Act 3, rings forth sonorously. Conductor Enrique Mazzola leads the Wiener Symphoniker and the Prague Philharmonic Choir effectively, although he cannot compete with the antics of the Hotel Modern.
You can listen with the picture turned off, but you will find better singing and less visual distraction in the Pesaro production, even with Middle-Eastern war as its theme. Or you can head straight to the La Scala production of Moïse et Pharaon, with no effort to update the story for our times, great conducting by Riccardo Muti, and old-fashioned stage-craft which parts the Red Sea effectively and dramatically.
Interested readers should consider Robert J. Farr’s informative and rather more sympathetic review.