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Moses' Journey into Egypt by Pietro Perugino (c. 1482) [Source: Wikiart]
06 Oct 2014

Mose in Egitto, Welsh National Opera

Welsh National Opera’s production of Rossini’s Mose in Egitto was the second of two Rossini operas (the other is Guillaume Tell) performed in tandem for their autumn tour.

Mose in Egitto, Welsh National Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Moses’s Journey into Egypt by Pietro Perugino (c. 1482) [Source: Wikiart]

 

Both use the same scenic concept, directed by David Pountney, designed by Raimund Bauer, with costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and lighting by Fabrice Kebour. Both are conducted by Carlo Rizzi and with some cast in common. We caught the first night of Mose in Egitto on 3 October 2014 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. The cast included David Alegret as Osiride, Andrew Foster-Williams as Faraone, Christine Rice as Amaltea, Miklos Sebestyen as Mose, Barry Banks as Aronne, Nicky Spence as Mambre, Claire Booth as Elcia and Leah-Marion Jones as Amenofi.

Rossini’s Biblical opera was written for Lent, 1818 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples where Rossini was the musical director. Between 1815 and 1822 he would write an important sequence of opera seria for the Royal theatres in Naples, which enabled him to take advantage of a superb orchestra, fine chorus, celebrated set design team, long rehearsal period and some of the finest soloists of the day including the leading diva Isabella Colbran and tenor Andrea Nozzari. The ensemble at the San Carlo was famously tenor rich, so that Rossini’s Neapolitan operas are tenor heavy and it is to WNO’s credit that in what was clearly a budget production they found three very strong, and finely contrasting tenors in David Alegret (Osiride), Barry Banks (Aronne) and Nicky Spence (Mambre).

In most of his Neapolitan operas Rossini pushed the bounds of what was possible on the operatic stage and Mose in Egitto is no different. Not only does it have grand scene effects, but they are accompanied by significant orchestra music, and the role of the chorus is highly prominent throughout. These are things we take for granted nowadays, but were innovations at the time.

Essentially, Rossini wrote a two-act opera seria which grafted the story of Mose (Miklos Sebestyen), Aronne (Barry Banks) and the Children of Israel in captivity and attempting to leave Egypt ruled by Faraone (Andrew Foster-Williams), onto a doomed love story involving Faraone’s son, Osiride (David Alegret) and a Hebrew girl, Elcia (Claire Booth). Things are complicated by the fact that Faraone’s wife, Amaltea (Christine Rice) has secretly converted to Judaism and supports the Jews, whilst the high priest, Mambre (Nicky Spence), is active against them. Things start with Egpyt in darkness, with a chorus and then prayer from Mose, and then proceed in typical opera seria fashion, but with inclusion of some rather dramatic choruses and an unusually prominent bass role in Mose. The Colbran role was Elcia, the Hebrew girl, so it was she who closed act two with a spectacular solo. But Rossini had a trick up his sleeve, and with act three moved well away from conventional opera seria with a mainly orchestral crossing of the Red Sea designed to show off the scenic splendour. In fact, the first night audience laughed and the opera remains something of challenge. Poutney and designer Raimund Bauer came up with their own highly theatrical but very simple solution.

The opera opened in virtual darkness, with a central white light diminishing leaving the opening choral ensemble, and then the solo for Mose (Sebestyen), in complete darkness. When light did come on, the set looked like an explosion in a paint factory, everything and everyone was a riot of colour. The set was a pair of huge movable textured screens, one red and one blue, in front of which were risers. The Children of Israel were dressed in blue/green/purple, whilst the Egyptians were in red/yellow/orange, to highly vivid effect especially as the face make-up reflected this. The Israelites were in 20th century workers style uniforms with the women in headscarves, the Egyptians were more formally dressed, the men of the chorus wearing fezzes. Osiride (David Alegret) was in a suit, and the rest of the Egyptian royal family mixed styles but had Egyptian head-dresses. My companion commented that the costumes with their use of colour and all over pattern reminded him of the work of the Serbian painter and designer Bernat Klein.

Within this, Pountney gave us a very straightforward production of Rossini’s drama, with few if any axes to grind. There were hints of links to modernity, in the costumes and the behaviour of the choruses (the way the Israelites prayed for instance), but everything was intelligently suggested rather than pressed on you. Rossini’s music is difficult, and his musical structures are large scale, and it was admirable the way Pountney and his cast articulated the drama without you ever feeling like they were keeping you entertained as can happen in opera seria. It helped that all the soloists were of a very high order.

In Rossini’s opera seria, there is a general rule that you are never alone; arias are relatively rare (until the heroine’s final scene, when Colbran got to come centre stage), and can often be accompanied by chorus. Solos develop into duets, and duets develop into quartets, Rossini seems to have taken a highly fluid view of drama and Pountney, his cast and Carlo Rizzi in the pit, made this work.

Singing the Colbran role of Elcia, Claire Booth really came into her own with Elcia’s final scene which closes act two. Before that, the character is a little one-sided, spending rather too much time drooping. Pountney, Booth and Alegret brought a rather nice suggestion of domination/submission into the Elcia/Osiride relationship. They have two duets, each powerful with the second rather disturbing (Alegret leading a blindfolded Booth onto the stage), this latter is interrupted and they are discovered, so Rossini leads us into the spectacular quartet sung by Alegret, Booth, Rice and Spence.

At first, I had to admit that I thought perhaps Booth’s voice was too light for the role. She had flexibility, but did she have the power and darkness in the lower voice, which Colbran (probably a mezzo-soprano with a high extension) seems to have had? Booth blended beautifully with Alegret in their duets, and with Leah Marian Jones, in another moving duet. But in the closing scenes of act two, she came into her own and revealed a wonderful armoury of fire-power in her voice which gave us all of the vocal fireworks necessary, yet all aligned to a powerfully dramatic performance. This performance was part of WNO’s Music and Madness season and it was clear that Booth’s Elcia was well on her way.

Spanish tenor David Alegret has sung Rossini tenor roles for Garsington in the UK and extensively all over Europe. He has the admirable combination of a tall-slim frame (unusual in a tenor), and a flexible, high-lying voice which fits Rossini’s complex music. It has to be said that his voice has a certain, narrow-focussed edginess to it, but he always used this expressively. And he combined a superb technique, with a fearlessness in the high lying range. The character of Osiride is not the most sympathetic, secretly in love with Elcia he wants to keep the Israelites in Egypt purely so that he can see her.

The two other roles, apart from Elcia, who get real solos are Faraone and his wife Amaltea. Foster-Williams impressed greatly as Faraone, making the character quite strong even though he has to spend the opera vacillating, alternately freeing and not-freeing the Israelites. Foster-Williams was both musical and dramatic in his solo, with an admirable facility for passagework, but it was the entirety and completeness of his performance which really impressed. The same was true of Christine Rice as Amaltea. This is not the most dramatically necessary of roles, but she had a superb solo in act two and participated in the famous quartet, as well as being dramatically vivid in the rest of the opera. But Rice brought her rich tones and an expressive facility in to passagework to bear and drew us in. This was a great example of a strong and intelligent singer making a role work for her.

The role of Mose, though the title role, is not the biggest in the opera, but then having a bass singing the title role in an opera seria was still something of a novelty. Sebestyen certainly had the physique du role, looking very much the Old Testament prophet and he brought the same level of authority to Mose’s series of prayers and imprecations. Mose does not take part in the opera seria shenanigins, he simply appears and disappears, spending his time either praying to God or hurling abuse at the Egyptians. This Sebestyen did extremely well (I am sure he is a highly sophisticated singer and capable of far more in other roles!), and topped a fine performance with his lovely opening of the famous prayer in act three.

Aronne (Moses’ brother Aaron) is not the largest of roles but Barry Banks who sang it is also singing Arnold in WNO’s performances of Guillaume Tell! Banks brought a high degree of drama and a vivid sense of the character’s anger and downright nastiness to the role, and his always characterful voice was well differentiated from Alegret’s in the ensembles, which is always a nice point. The quartet in act two is unusual because Rossini scores it for soprano, mezzo-soprano and two tenors, which certainly requires a nice differentiation in style and timbre, something that Alegret and Banks were clearly aware of.

The third tenor in all this was that vicious High Priest, Mambre played with relish by Nicky Spence. In fact, the libretto is relatively sympathetic to Mambre, he is devoted to his own Gods and believes that Mose is simply a charlatan. Spence is one of those singers who seems incapable of giving a boring performance and he is on something of a Rossini roll at the moment. Having seen him as Iago in Buxton Festival’s Otello last year, it was good to see and hear him back in action as Mambre (and he is singing in Guillaume Tell too).

Leah-Marian Jones sang the relatively small role of Amenofi, a Hebrew woman, and she use her familiar mellifluous tones in sympathetic duet with Claire Booth.

Another character in all this was the chorus. Pountney had them divided into two, half Israelites and half Egyptians, but staged it so that the entire chorus participated in all the action (for the prayer in act three they hovered discreetly almost off stage; in darkness but able to contribute). And the chorus was magnificent. One of the joys of this opera was the way Rossini took the opera/oratorio form (Lent called for such things in Italy) and gave it a highly dramatic context. Not only does he write good choruses, but he gives the chorus dramatic role. And the WNO Chorus, chorus master Alexander Martin, were clearly on thrilling, peak form.

As were the WNO Orchestra, playing superbly for Carlo Rizzi. Rossini pushed orchestral as well as vocal boundaries, making the orchestral part far more complex. Rizzi clearly has a good feel for this period of music and made the piece flow beautifully, keeping pace just right and never making it feel rushed but never over indulging. The orchestra followed him, and we were treated to some lovely individual solo moments along the way.

The staging was simple and direct, with the screens and risers being moved around by visible stage-hands who almost became part of the show. It was clear that Pountney was intentionaly making this a theatrical performance, and whilst the rain of fire from heaven at the end of act one was a little disappointing, the crossing of the Red Sea with the screens parting and a billowing wave of silk covering Faraone and Mambre, was very effective.

This was one of the most satisfying Rossini opera seria that I have ever heard in the theatre. Poutney, Rizzi and their cast not only brought a high degree of musicality to the work, but they made dramatic sense too. You never felt preached to, and you never felt that the performers were struggling to entertain you in one of the long arias or ensembles, instead were were treated to a superbly dramatic whole which paid Rossini the compliment of taking him seriously as a really gifted dramatist.

Robert Hugill


Cast and production information:

David Alegret: Osiride, Andrew Foster-Williams: Faraone, Christine Rice: Amaltea, Miklos Sebestyen: Mose, Barry Banks: Aronne, Nicky Spence: Mambre, Claire Booth: Elcia, Leah-Marion Jones: Amenofi. David Pountney: Director, Raimund Bauer: Set Design, Marie-Jeanne Lecca: Costume Design, Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 3 October 2014.

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