Rossini: Moïse et Pharaon

The Collegiate Chorale

Carnegie Hall, New York, 9 December 2011 4 stars

Pelleas et Melisande Unlike European opera-lovers, Americans with an appetite for operatic 'rarities' face a dearth of opportunities for experiencing such works in a live setting.  Therefore, enterprising organizations like the Collegiate Chorale and American Symphony Orchestra are indispensable, and deserve gratitude for their consistent efforts in presenting non-standard repertoire.  It was a particularly inspired choice to offer a concert performance of Rossini's grand Moïse et Pharaon.  More oratorio than opera, the musical focus is on the chorus for much of the evening, and Rossini's ingenious choice to depict the epic sweep of the Biblical narrative through grand choral interjections gave James Bagwell and his enthusiastic Collegiate Chorale ample opportunity to shine.

Originally composed for performance during Lent, and thus required to have a 'sacred' theme, the opera is an anomaly in the Rossini canon: there is very little dramatic action and opportunities for vocal display are minimal.  The familiar story concerns Moses and his repeated confrontations with Pharaoh over the release of the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt.  In a common convention of the time, Rossini injected an extra hint of complication by concocting a sub-plot concerning an illicit love between Moses' niece (Anaï) and Pharaoh's son (Aménophis).  Finally, there are smaller, but important roles for Pharaoh's wife (Sinaide), and Anaï's parents (Eliézer and Marie), bringing the total number of principal singers to seven and allowing Rossini to compose stunning ensembles in all sorts of vocal permutations.

In recent decades, there has been a gratifying resurgence of interest in neglected titles from the bel canto period.  Accordingly, many long forgotten pieces have been revived with varying degrees of success; some, like Rossini's Armida, have actually made it all the way to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  To my knowledge, Moïse has never completely faded from public view, making it unique among Rossini's opera seria, most of which fell into obscurity sooner or later.  Revivals have been sporadic, and the performance history is complicated due to the existence of several musical and textual versions.  As it happens, Moïse et Pharaon was actually a four-act French adaptation (Paris, 1827) of Rossini's earlier three-act Italian opera Mosè in Egitto (Naples, 1818).  Both operas were highly successful, but the earlier version was quickly supplanted in Italy by performances of the newer Parisian version, translated from French back into Italian as Mosè e Faraone or Mosè, il nuovo (first performed in 1829).  Most of the revivals over the last half-century have been of the hybrid four-act version in Italian, meaning that chances to hear the full French version (complete with obligatory ballet) have been few.  There was a notable revival of the latter at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 1997 that was preserved on disc, albeit with suffocatingly poor acoustics and middling vocal performances from the principals.

James Bagwell offered the four-act French version, but minus the ballet (almost a half-hour of Rossinian inventiveness), due to the limitations of a concert setting.  As often is the case, the supertitles featured plentiful errors in grammar and spelling – always an irritating distraction.  Aside from this minor drawback, the performance as a whole was a solid success, largely due to Bagwell's inspired conducting and some truly fine vocalism from several of the lead singers.  Rossini had the luxury of composing for two virtuoso orchestras in Naples and Paris, and the American Symphony Orchestra met the challenges of his colorful score with aplomb, vacillating vividly between foreboding solemnity, awestruck wonder, and joyful celebration.  The winds and brass in particular seemed to relish their many opportunities to depict such aural images as an erupting volcano, a plague of darkness, and of course, the flight of the Hebrews across the Red Sea.  Interestingly, though the Naples Mosè concludes with the Biblical parting of the Red Sea, Rossini actually changed the action in Paris so that the Hebrews walked on water to escape – a handy skill apparently unavailable to the Egyptian army.

Pelleas et MelisandeDespite the lack of overtly flashy vocal lines, there are many wonderful opportunities for the lead singers to show off both excellent technique and an ability to draw three-dimensional characters from the pages of the score.  As Moses, bass James Morris offered understated intensity in a relatively low-energy performance that could have benefitted from more incisive attack and a much stronger physical profile.  Long stage experience has taken some toll on his vocal resources – e.g., noticeably diminished security in his upper register – but overall, his vocal colors were satisfyingly patriarchal and he effectively anchored many of the ensembles.  As the other title character, bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen made Pharaoh suitably commanding with big, virile tone, but little in the way of characterization.  While his vocalism was secure and vibrantly colored, he was firmly glued to the score as he sang, rarely glancing at the audience or his fellow singers.  Rossini assigned both Aménophis and Eliézer to tenors, the former originally composed for the Naples stalwart Andrea Nozzari.  Nozzari was celebrated for his rich, baritonal tenor voice, and the roles Rossini composed for him reflect this, both in range and temperament.  Eric Cutler worked hard to inject an appropriate dose of menace into his light-weight voice, but he seems to have lost some quality of tone in recent years: there is a hollowness that creeps in from time to time, robbing his singing of ring and thrust.  Still, he effectively acted his role, proving an effective foil to Ketelsen's rather more stolid Pharaoh.  Michele Angelini made a strong impression in the smaller role of Moses' brother Eliézer, offering handsome tone, excellent agility, and strength in all vocal registers.

Of the three female characters, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson provided a matronly Marie, with velvety tone, but little else in terms of distinguishing stage presence.  Local favorite and up-and-coming soprano Angela Meade received wildly enthusiastic applause from the Carnegie Hall audience that, to my ears, was out of scale with the actual quality of her performance.  Assigned the seconda donna role of Pharaoh's wife Sinaide, her dowdy stage presence conflicted with the vocal excitement Meade seemed determined to generate, especially during her aria in Act 2.  It is crystal clear that this young singer has been thoroughly trained and knows how to imbue Rossini's vocal lines with bel canto flair, however the voice itself doesn't seem to be of the highest quality.  With soft edges and somewhat blustery tone, it's often hard to discern the exact pitches she sings, and her facial expressions betray absolutely nothing of the character's inner thoughts.  Her vocalism therefore comes off as a series of well thought out technical accomplishments, but without any personal charisma to bind them together.  Altogether, hers was a frustrating performance. 

Pelleas et MelisandeMarina Rebeka's Anaï, however, was spectacular in every way.  I hadn't previously heard this singer in live performance, and she made a strong impression with gorgeous, penetrating tone and an affecting stage presence.  Having previously sung the role at Salzburg, Ms. Rebeka exuded total confidence in her vocal technique and a thorough understanding of the emotional currents affecting her character.  Both her aria and the duet with Aménophis in Act 4 were highlights of the evening, and the audience rewarded her with the largest ovation.  Though still young, Ms. Rebeka seems to have everything one could desire in a bel canto heroine: easy agility, well-integrated vocal registers, an emotional connection to the texts, and an individual vocal color that she can vary to suit the shifting moods of the music.  Perhaps her diction could be more distinct, but aside from this one cavil, she has all the tools for a successful future in this repertoire.

As mentioned, the Collegiate Chorale ably and enthusiastically supported the soloists and created a firm foundation for Rossini's unique opera.  As an ensemble, they successfully traversed all dynamic levels and were equally effective at depicting the lamentations of the Hebrews one moment and the angry menace of the Egyptian army the next.  Hopefully, James Bagwell will continue to explore similar 'chorus-centric' rarities from the bel canto era for future concerts.  Perhaps Donizetti's Il diluvio universale will be next?

By David Laviska

Photo Credits: Erin Baiano



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