Less lavishly cast, less beautifully sung, slightly inferior (live) sound quality: one might not think that this new recording of Rossini's Mosè in Egitto could offer much competition to the new Natalie Dessay recording of La Sonnambula on EMI.
But in all honesty, I enjoyed it quite a lot more. Whereas the conducting on the Bellini work is precious, slow and laboured in a number of places, here Antonio Fogliani leads the Württemberg Philharmonic in a well-paced, exciting and vivid account of the 1819 Naples version of Rossini's azione tragico-sacra. The more famous names in the Sonnambula are not (on the whole) matched for beauty of tone by the largely unknown cast in the Rossini from the Wildbad Festival, but the latter are far more engaged with the action and the characters' psychological development.
The opera itself is also more interesting, in many respects. Rossini himself felt that he had mustered up unusual patience with his version of the Moses story, which blends aspects of opera and oratorio in accordance with traditions regarding the staging of works during Lent. The piece moves at a breathtaking speed, opening with a rousing chorus of consternation over the darkness of Egypt which sets the scene for the grand aspects of the opera (God has punished the Pharaoh with plagues). Within it, though, is an angst-ridden subplot involving the love of a young Hebrew woman, Elcìa, for the Pharaoh's son, Osiride. The latter attempts to stop the Hebrews from leaving Egypt, and plots with the High Priest, Mambre, to thwart Moses. The inevitable tension between private and public - something which predates a similar device in Verdi's Aida - makes the opera well worth listening to. The construction of the first act alone (a duet and aria in between the darkness of the Introduction and the hailstones of the finale) renders this an important and interesting work.
Naxos has captured a lively production in this recording, one which particularly embraces the contrast between the intimate and the spectacular. There are some extraordinary big gestures in Mose, such as the title character's call on God which results in the restoration of light and the climactic division of the Red Sea. This is where the Wildbad Rossini performance really scores over the Sonnambula for me, which even some of its admirers have found a little bland. It's also commendable to be performing the 1819 Naples version and in the 2004 Critical Edition from the Fondazione Rossini, the significance of which is described in the informative accompanying booklet.
One name, at least, will be familiar. Lorenzo Ragazzo is about to appear in Covent Garden's revival of La Cenerentola and was an efficient Guglielmo in the July 2007 Così fan tutte. Here he dominates proceedings as Moses, largely because his firm, dark tone is in a different class to most of the other singers'. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by bass Wojtek Gierlach's performance as Faraone, a striking counterpoint to Regazzo's Moses, and soprano Akie Amou is also very stylish as Elcìa. Less successful perhaps is tenor Filippo Adami, sometimes a little strained though he sings with passion. The others are merely adequate, with the exception of another tenor, the promising Giorgio Trucco as Aronne.
The orchestra, wind band and chorus all join in with the spirit of their conductor, Fogliani, who is so committed to the work that odd blemishes in the performance recede into the background. For ten pounds, this is a bargain opera recording.