Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, October 3 2014
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi
Director: David Pountney
Set Designer: Raimund Bauer
Costume Designer: Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer: Fabrice Kebour
Cast: David Alegret / Andrew Foster-Williams / Christine Rice / Miklós Sebestyén / Barry Banks / Nicky Spence / Claire Booth / Leah-Marian Jones
As if the large number and rarity of Rossini’s serious operas were not daunting enough, the Italian has created a conundrum for us today by bequeathing two versions of the same Exodus story: the first, Mosè in Egitte (Moses in Egypt), is a three-act setting of an Italian libretto, which premiered in Naples in 1818. Nine years later (and after initial revisions), the work re-surfaced at the Paris Opéra in an extended four-act version to a French libretto under the title Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le passage de la mer rouge (Moses and Pharoah, or the Crossing of the Red Sea).
Generally, the assumption has been that the latter version is superior; not only because its appearance seems to suggest that Rossini was not entirely satisfied with the original piece, but because he wrote the French version just two years before his crowning grand opéra masterpiece, Guillaume Tell. Yet it seems to me just as likely that Rossini was simply adapting the opera for the differing tastes and expectations of a Paris audience, rather than setting out to improve a piece that already contained much fine and subtle artistry – albeit clearly belonging to an earlier stage of his artistic development. Mosè in Egitte bore the subtitle azione tragico-sacra: ‘tragic-sacred action’. Rossini had written it under strict controls from the censor for performance during Lent – a period when going to the opera was frowned upon – and a later, more spectacle-hungry Paris audience would surely not have been so appreciative of its quasi-devout fusion of opera and oratorio as their earlier Neapolitan fellows.
In staging Mosè in Egitte, Welsh National Opera have, of course, gone for the sane practical option in that the later, grander Moïse would be impossibly demanding of already squeezed resources in a worsening financial climate (not to mention straining an heroically busy Chorus). However, the choice is no mere expediency from Artistic Director David Pountney, but the product of a deliberate and inspired thematic approach spanning entire seasons at WNO. Both Mosè and Guillaume Tell clearly come under this autumn’s banner of ‘Liberty or Death!’ – and both fit within an ongoing pattern of Italian bel canto operas for the autumn season.* But Mosè – rather than Moïse – can also be seen as the direct progenitor of Verdi’s Nabucco, and even Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, throwing light on interesting strands of operatic development not just within Rossini’s life, but beyond. Within its own terms, the work shows a careful structural and stylistic balancing by the composer, combining passionate arias with fine ensemble-work and robust, static choruses within an epic, biblical frame.**
So, what of Pountney’s new production of Mosè? In a word, it’s terrific, and matches quite brilliantly his Guillaume Tell, notwithstanding the far greater stature of that final opera as a piece. Much of the credit for this goes to the exceptional cast – a prerequisite of any truly successful bel canto opera performance – with ensemble work if anything outshining individual efforts. Claire Booth is magnificent as the Israelite Elcia, rich in a dramatic coloratura that takes flight over the corpse of her Egyptian lover; a tortured and tautly performed Osiride in David Alegret, showcasing a sharp-edged but nuanced tenor. Mezzo Christine Rice, too, deserves plaudits for her exquisitely natural and deeply felt Amaltea, whilst Miklós Sebestyén and Andrew Foster-Williams grow throughout in dark, adversarial grandeur as Mosè and Faraone respectively. Of supporting roles, Barry Banks is unquenchable as Aronne (performed with great fioritora stamina alongside his role as Arnold in Tell), whilst Leah-Marian Jones makes for a strong Amenofi, and Nicky Spence steals his scenes as an archly expressive Mambre.
All this – as if it were not enough – is supported by the excellent Chorus we have come to expect from WNO, and some wonderfully paced, idiomatic classical-romantic ambiguity from conductor Carlo Rizzi in the pit. For Rossini famously looks at once backwards to the 18th century and forwards to the 19th – and there is much to savour in this score thanks to a WNO Orchestra ravishingly adept in accompanying light and shade. From Mozartian solo clarinet writing (beautifully rendered by Principal Leslie Craven) to dramatic martial tuttis and the heart-rending simplicity of the Israelite prayer, ‘Dal tuo stellato soglio’, the music is delivered with crisp articulation and stylish colour.
In production terms, it is the visual colour – or lack of it – that arrests from the start. Pountney boldly envelopes us in pitch black for a full fifteen minutes of the opening scene; a literal ‘Plague of Darkness’ for which Rossini offers no welcoming overture by way of preparation. Only Rizzi’s baton glows eerily green to indicate any point of focus beyond the invisible singers, who eventually emerge blinking into a Chagall-inspired primitivist world of absolutes and primary colours. The two tribes – the suffering Israelites led by Moses, and their Egyptian enslavers ruled by Pharaoh – are garbed (by costume designer, Maria-Jeanne Lecca) in ‘opposing’ hues of blue-green and red-orange respectively, echoing a backdrop of twin, blue and red textured panels depicting a symbolic desert-cum-Red Sea. These physical tableaux (stone tablets too in a sense?) echo a sequence of compelling narrative tableaux within which the Exodus tale and romantic tragedy are played out.
The simplicity of Raimund Bauer’s set and Fabrice Kebour’s lighting is highly effective. Indeed, the staging altogether puts one in mind of a kind of passion play; a notion not at all out of keeping with Chagall’s unique mix of fantastical symbolism and Jewish iconography, nor with Rossini’s ‘oratorio-opera’. Moses alone – the compassionate patriarch – wears white-yellow, and his subtly suggested ‘horns’ infer God’s rays of light alá Chagall’s paintings; an artistic representation of the prophet reaching back to Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture, for example, created around 1513-15 – before the birth of opera itself.
Chagall, of course, understood exile – and terrified exodus – all too well on a personal level. Those themes recurred in his work on many levels, the latter most directly as the parting of the Red Sea, and the deliverance that miracle was supposed to have afforded the Israelites from their lethal pursuers.*** At the première of Mosè in 1818, however, it was this last, epic scene of the opera which famously let the production down, as the audience jeered a hand-held, billowing blue silk ‘sea’ off the set. So, how to stage the unstageable today (to paraphrase WNO Nicholas John Dramaturg, Sophie Rashbrook), without recourse to expensive video effects? With characteristic audaciousness, Pountney offers us… a blue silk sea, but rendered intriguingly, in a way which suggests an outcome very different from that described in the Bible. In Pountney’s Mosè, God’s tidal wave of wrath drowns only the Pharaoh and his close minions rather than the entire Egyptian mob. Here, by contrast, they survive their tyrannical ruler to conjoin with the Israelites one-to-one on solid ground – whether in combat or in friendship remains deliberately ambiguous as the scene is held in freeze-frame at the finale.
This last gesture feels oddly disjunct on the stage, and seems to appear out of the blue (if you pardon the pun) in an opera which is ultimately more concerned with romantic tragedy than ideas. Nonetheless, it takes advantage of the openness of Rossini’s score to directorial interpretation at this point. And it had me pondering the extent to which it is Haydn actually, rather than Mozart, to whom Rossini ‘looks back’ in Mosè in a broad, aesthetic sense (notwithstanding the clarinet writing and clear echoes of Don Giovanni’s Commendatore in his depiction of Moses). At any rate, Pountney’s scene is certainly more suggestive of Creation than of Requiem, so to speak – the former something Rossini himself infers in the coming of the light in Act I – as well as introducing a distinct element of rational, human choice into the themes of autocracy, abuse of power, and ‘destiny’. After all, Rossini was writing at a time when Europe was still reeling from the long, dark years of the Napoleonic Wars, and he would go on to produce his own, direct – indeed, consummate – plea for the principal of political and national freedom in Guillaume Tell.
** There is more yet to this thematic train of thought, as Rossini will grace the WNO stage again in popular, comic guise with The Barber of Seville in Spring 2016, forming one of three ‘Figaro’ operas that season. Before that, WNO’s theme in Autumn 2015 will be ‘Music and Madness’, featuring Bellini’s celebrated I Puritani; in Mosè there are more than hints of a deranged bel canto heroine in Elcia’s grief at the death of Osiride – as there are in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, performed last autumn.
*** Just as an aside, there is a further potential link suggested here – if only obliquely by the presence of Chagall-inspired design. And that concerns the intriguing question of Rossini’s influence on modern Russian opera, specifically Shostakovich…
Thanks to WNO’s generosity, donors to the Wales Arts Review crowdfunding campaign can opt to receive two tickets to next season’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff on Thursday February 26 2015.