Rossini: Moïse et Pharaon

The Collegiate Chorale

Carnegie Hall, New York, 18 December 2011 3 stars

Pelleas et Melisande The Collegiate Chorale is famous for engaging with a wide-ranging repertoire – rarely performed pieces such as Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday (during the past season), and The Mikado. This November, they tackled Rossini's Moïse et Pharaon.

The extensive choral singing was surely appealing to this company and his chorus. There are two versions of this opera. In 1818, Rossini first wrote Mosè in Egitto, presented at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. The second version, aggrandized for the Paris Académie Royale de la Musique in 1827, was originally entitled Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le Passage de la Mer Rouge. The famous singers Adolphe Nourrit and Henri-Bernard Dabadie were in the first Parisian cast.  The initial performances at La Scala were not particularly successful, but there were subsequent performances at Covent Garden in 1850, under the title Zora and, ten years later, at the Academy of Music in New York.

The trouble for this reviewer is that the second version is fairly glacial, when compared to the earlier version written for the San Carlo in 1818, which was in a brisk three acts, instead of four. In the Paris revision there are wondrously wrought moments for the soloists, but the static choral sections sound somewhat oratorio-like, at times. It takes the escaping Jews four long acts to reach the parted waters of the Red Sea, after many of the Pharaos' false promises to free them. On the other hand, as a choral work, this opera is an impressive achievement (and I wonder how many were in the chorus of the Paris Opera when the revised version was presented in 1827).

Earlier this year, I saw a brilliant production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier of Mosè in Egitto at Zürich Opera earlier. That production cleverly transposed the opera to the present, with allusions to Palestinian (read Jewish) terrorists, stock exchange quotes, and other contemporary references. It all worked extremely effectively - something I cannot say for this particular Moïse et Pharaon. For me the concert performance by the Collegiate Chorale emphasized the static qualities of this piece. One would like to see the parting of the Red Sea, and the drowning of the Egyptians, as in the De Mille film of The Ten Commandments. (Apparently, the climax of the original version in Naples was met with laughing derision). 

Nonetheless, the vocal standard of this performance was very high, with soloists including Kyle Ketelsen (Pharaon), Angela Meade (his wife Sinaide), Eric Cutler (their son Aménophis), Marina Rebeka (Anaï), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Miriam), and James Morris (Moïse). Morris was suitably biblical-sounding, the pharaonic couple was intense and rhapsodic, and their son, Cutler, sang with an Italianate passion, which was wonderfully pat for the excitable attitude of his character.  There were wild cheers for Rebeka as the Hebrew girl, and for Jackson, who sang Moses' sister with terrific fury. 

The chorus and orchestra, under conductor James Bagwell, performed creditably. There was, however, little of the taut immediacy and excitement that this piece requires.

By Richard Traubner

Photo Credits: Erin Baiano



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