Moses in Egypt, Welsh National Opera, WNO, Cardiff, October 2014Posted on 4 October 2014
Congratulations to WNO for staging a Rossini masterpiece that in its day “marked the final and complete emancipation of the bass singer … for the purposes of opera seria” (Francis Toye). Hitherto it had been conventional to restrict important bass roles to opera buffa, but here both Moses and Pharaoh are basses.
The sacred theme was an important element in this new development, and its first performances in Naples in 1818 were very properly scheduled during Lent. It became wildly popular, and although the theatrical difficulties of parting the Red Sea was originally a source for much merriment, Rossini solved that problem the next year by inserting the wonderful prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio (From thy starry throne), whose new musical style evoked huge excitement and caused the audience to forget entirely about the Red Sea. According to a doctor in Naples some forty young women suffered attacks of nervous fever or violent convulsions on account of it.
The escape from servitude in Egypt is of course one of the defining stories of Judeo-Christian tradition, but in this opera the librettist cleverly adds a love interest. A Hebrew girl named Elcia is secretly married to the Pharaoh’s son Osiride, who naturally schemes to avoid the release of her people from slavery. The Pharaoh would otherwise be happy to let these troublesome people go, and the opera starts with a plague of darkness that only the God of Moses can dispel.
In 1818 the contrast of such darkness with a well-lighted auditorium would have been striking, but in this production the effect is achieved in a different way. The light in the orchestra is heavily subdued — the musicians read scores visible in ultraviolet, and the conductor’s baton is a magic wand whose light is clearly visible. From the darkness on one side of the stage one hears Hebrew voices and from the other side Egyptian. After the Pharaoh makes his promise and Moses causes light to reappear, we see the dichotomy between two peoples backed by huge squares of colour. The striking boldness of Raimund Bauer’s sets and the colours of Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes cleverly subdued and raised by Fabrice Kebour’s lighting, particularly in the exquisite Act II quartet between Elcia, Osiride, the Queen and Aaron, give a wonderful basis for David Pountney’s excellent staging of this opera.
As for the singing, the strength and firmness of Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén as Moses contrasted beautifully with the warmth and vocal embellishments of Christine Rice as the Egyptian queen. While Rossini’s vocal lines portray the Hebrews without such embellishment the Egyptians are given more elaborate passages, and Andrew Foster-Williams’s delightful bass made his Pharaoh a potentially likeable character, though heavily influenced by the fierce arrogance and strong vocal line of Nicky Spence as Mambre the high priest, plus the bold high tenor of David Alegret as his own son Osiride. As well as two basses there are two high Rossini tenors here, with Barry Banks making an excellent Aaron. In the small role of the Hebrew woman Amenofi, Leah-Marian Jones was terrific, and in the main role of Elcia, Claire Booth’s vocal power and gloriously dramatic portrayal was the central pivot of the opera.
Carlo Rizzi’s wonderful conducting of music that was first performed within a month of the composer’s 26th birthday, fully brought out the genius of Rossini, demonstrating why he had such a seminal effect on the operatic style of later Italian composers. Absolutely not to be missed.
After a further performance in Cardiff on October 5, the production tours to: New Theatre Oxford, 17 Oct; Venue Cymru Llandudno, 24 Oct; The Bristol Hippodrome, 14 Nov; Birmingham Hippodrome, 21 Nov; Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 28 Nov — for details click here.