24 Sep 2006


Myto does many an opera-lover a service by offering this enjoyable recording of Rossini's French grand opera, here called Moïse.

On the other hand, Myto does the fans and the opera itself a disservice with its paltry presentation. The scrawny booklet has neither synopsis nor essay. A thorough track listing is appreciated, as are the biographies of the four leads. For another Barbieri, this scanty information might be acceptable, but not for an opera as little-known, or with as complex an origin, as Moïse.

That title indicates some of the problem. Based on an Italian original (Mose in Egitto), the opera's French title is usually given as Moïse et Pharaon. It complicates matters to have Myto resort to abbreviation.

Online research soon resulted in the discovery of a brief synopsis that matches the cast listing. The basic elements of the Moses story through the exodus appear, mixed in with an operatic standby, a love affair thwarted by the powers that be and historical circumstance. In the end, all that literally gets washed away at the opera's spectacular conclusion, when the Red Sea swamps the stage.

In adapting his Italian work of years earlier, Rossini added much music for chorus, and these sections provide great pleasure, with the ensembles at the end of act one (of four acts) being highlights. The 1975 live recording's predominant appeal will probably be, however, its capture of five singers in their prime.

Samuel Ramey takes the title role. His recent appearances have found him struggling with an intrusive wobble. Here he has a rock-solid delivery, with clear enunciation and agile coloratura. Deeper characterization may be absent, but this is not Schoenberg's Moses. Ramey does well for Rossini's.

Shirley Verrett and Cecilia Gasdia (respectively, the Pharoah's wife and a young Jewess in love with her son) pour out beautiful sounds, with Gasdia's freshness competing with Verrett's rather grand tone. As the Pharaoh, Jean-Philippe Lafont has only brief exchanges with Moses, and in fact only appears in the middle acts. His idiomatic delivery makes one wish for more of that character.

The tenor role of the Pharaoh's son requires the typical Rossinian high-flying acrobatics, and Keith Lewis sails through the role, with surprisingly ingratiating tone.

Recorded in decent stereo, Myto's release suffers slightly from stage noise and shifting perspectives; the Paris orchestra, led by Georges Prêtre, plays the lively score with flair. This opera may never reclaim a position in the standard repertory, but this CD preserves a performance that exhibits qualities well worth experiencing.

Chris Mullins