Gioachino Rossini - Mosè in Egitto
Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2011
Graham Vick, Roberto Abbado, Riccardo Zanellato, Alex Esposito, Olga Senderskaya, Dmitri Korchak, Sonia Ganassi, Yijie Shi, Enea Scala, Chiara Amarù | Opus Arte
Director Graham Vick and set designer Stuart Nunn, as well as the administration team of the Pesaro Rossini Opera Festival, go to great pains in interviews on the ‘Making Of’ extra feature included on this release to emphasise that their 2011 production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto doesn’t take sides and offers no solutions, but rather strives to present a balanced account of the impact of conflict and oppression on a population, specifically in a modern-day Middle East context. Balanced it may be, but that doesn’t mean that this production plays it safe in any way. Far from it. Vick depicts Rossini’s Biblical epic in terms of suicide bombers, terrorists, torture, self-immolation and - perhaps most controversially - styling Moses as an Osama Bin Laden figure, wielding a Kalashnikov and stirring up a Holy War against their oppressors through inflammatory video recordings.
Many people who take a very traditional view of opera would argue that Moses in Egypt should reflect the original period of its Biblical subject and that a director has no right to update it or impose a modern-day concept onto a work that it wasn’t written to express. It’s true that works can often be twisted from their original context into something that they were never meant to be, which if less than faithful can nonetheless produce interesting results. Without contradicting the intent of a single word of the original libretto here however, Graham Vick shows that there is a case for opera not to be entirely subservient to the words alone, but that it should also take into account an interpretation of what the music is expressing. Rossini’s score isn’t set in any specific period, but is abstractly aligned rather to timeless human feelings and emotions. As a director, Vick clearly wants the production of Rossini’s great work to express those sentiments in a meaningful way to a modern-day audience, and the extraordinarily powerful nature of its presentation here clearly justifies that approach.
Graham Vick - admirably in my view - is noted for taking a “community” approach to opera. It’s not an elite entertainment for a selected few, it’s not a museum for the historical representation of works that are hundreds of years old, nor is it about putting on a so-called definitive performance to demonstrate the vocal techniques of singing stars and divas, but rather it’s about viewing opera as a living artform that has something meaningful to communicate to a broad range of people in the present day. That requires the involvement and participation of the audience, and even if that’s just engagement with the issues presented, then that’s an achievement alone. In order to shake the audience out of passive reception however, Vick and set designer Stuart Nunn strive to break down the barriers between the stage and the audience in other ways. Here at the Rossini Opera Festival for Mosè in Egitto, that involves using a venue in Pesaro that isn’t a traditional opera theatre - it’s a basketball arena - and dressing it in a way (like a refugee camp side by side with a modern palace) that feels more recognisable to what an audience would be familiar with from recent events in television news reports.
Vick’s approach the 2011 Pesaro Mosè in Egitto is borne out by the nature of the work itself as an ‘azione tragico-sacra‘ in three acts. Written for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1818, Moses in Egypt saw Rossini move away from his comic operas into a new period of mature works that were to some extent constrained by specific structural conventions and the demands of certain singers, but the composer managed nonetheless to attune these mannerisms brilliantly to serve the nature of the dramatic content. That’s immediately apparent from the lack of Overture in the opera and the fact that it opens instead with the ‘Plague of Darkness’ choral lament, which the director stages powerfully by having blood-stained Arabs walking through the audience, holding out photographs of friends and relatives lost in the latest bombardment/plague carried out on the word of Moses in retribution for the enslavement of the Hebrew people by the Egyptian Pharaoh, plastering the pictures and messages on walls in front of the orchestra pit. It’s a meaningful image that brings the power of Rossini’s writing home, and the same approach is used throughout, consistently and often to quite striking effect, the final scenes in particular making a unforgettable impression that underlines the relevance and importance of making the work say something about the world today.
I say “orchestra pit”, but it’s clear - and not just from the informal dress of the musicians - that the orchestra are also very much a part of the action - particularly in this production were the music carries much more than the libretto does alone. If there are any doubts about the efficacy of the treatment, the powerhouse performance of the Orchestra Teatro Comunale di Bologna will quickly put any doubts to rest. Directed by Roberto Abbado this is a sparkling, sensitive performance that captures the verve, rhythm and lyrical lightness of Rossini’s versatile arrangements. The singers in most of the principal roles on the Egyptian side aren’t heavy-weights by any means, but singers like Alex Esposito, Dmitri Korchak and Olga Senderskaya are all lyrically qualified and well-suited to the roles of Faraone, Osiride and Amaltea. There’s a little more personality and weight required however for the parts of Mosè and Elcia, both in terms of their vocal demands and the necessity of having the strength of personality to bring together the political and human elements that combine in the drama, and those demands are more than capably met by Riccardo Zanellato and Sonia Ganassi. Excellent and noteworthy performances from Yijie Shi (Aronne/Aaron), Enea Scala (High Priest Mambre) and Chiara Amarù (Amenofi) really contribute to the overall power and quality of the work and the performance as a whole.
The 2011 Pesaro Mosè in Egitto isn’t pretty to look at, but it’s not meant to be. It does make some controversial references, but there’s nothing here that can’t be justified as a genuine reflection of human nature and how people live in the world today. That might not be what you expect to see in an opera performance of Moses in Egypt, but the brilliance of the production here is that it works both ways, drawing inspiration from Rossini’s remarkable score, finding a meaningful modern way to bring its themes to life, while the same time injecting its ancient Biblical story with a heavy dose of reality. It’s a testimony to Rossini’s brilliant writing and Andrea Leone Tottola’s poetic libretto that, musically and dramatically, Mosè in Egitto is more than capable of bearing it. If it’s the intention of the Rossini Opera Festival to look afresh are both familiar and rarely performed works by the composer in order to reevaluate qualities and strengths that are clearly there but which have been buried under decades of operatic mannerisms, then this kind of production achieves that most impressively. Stripped right back to its expressive power, this 2011 production of Mosè in Egitto is consequently something of a revelation.
As with all the recent Pesaro Rossini releases, that revelation extends to being able to see and hear these performance presented so well in High Definition on Blu-ray. Outstanding image quality in full-HD 1080/60i, detailed and beautifully toned high resolution audio mixes only enhance the efforts of the performers. Mainly due to the unconventional nature of the venue, radio mics are used, presumably only for recording purposes, but the mixing is well done and comes across naturally here. As well as a booklet that covers the production and gives a synopsis, there is a Cast Gallery and a 25-minute long behind-the-scenes ‘Making Of’ with interviews that explain the intentions behind the concept very well. The BD is region-free, with subtitles in English, French and German.