Mose in Egitto, Welsh National Opera

Both use the same scenic
concept, directed by David Pountney, designed by Raimund Bauer, with costumes
by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and lighting by Fabrice Kebour. Both are conducted by
Carlo Rizzi and with some cast in common. We caught the first night of Mose
in Egitto
on 3 October 2014 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. The
cast included David Alegret as Osiride, Andrew Foster-Williams as Faraone,
Christine Rice as Amaltea, Miklos Sebestyen as Mose, Barry Banks as Aronne,
Nicky Spence as Mambre, Claire Booth as Elcia and Leah-Marion Jones as Amenofi.

Rossini’s Biblical opera was written for Lent, 1818 at the Teatro San
Carlo in Naples where Rossini was the musical director. Between 1815 and 1822
he would write an important sequence of opera seria for the Royal theatres in
Naples, which enabled him to take advantage of a superb orchestra, fine chorus,
celebrated set design team, long rehearsal period and some of the finest
soloists of the day including the leading diva Isabella Colbran and tenor
Andrea Nozzari. The ensemble at the San Carlo was famously tenor rich, so that
Rossini’s Neapolitan operas are tenor heavy and it is to WNO’s credit that
in what was clearly a budget production they found three very strong, and
finely contrasting tenors in David Alegret (Osiride), Barry Banks (Aronne) and
Nicky Spence (Mambre).

In most of his Neapolitan operas Rossini pushed the bounds of what was
possible on the operatic stage and Mose in Egitto is no different. Not
only does it have grand scene effects, but they are accompanied by significant
orchestra music, and the role of the chorus is highly prominent throughout.
These are things we take for granted nowadays, but were innovations at the

Essentially, Rossini wrote a two-act opera seria which grafted the
story of Mose (Miklos Sebestyen), Aronne (Barry Banks) and the Children of
Israel in captivity and attempting to leave Egypt ruled by Faraone (Andrew
Foster-Williams), onto a doomed love story involving Faraone’s son, Osiride
(David Alegret) and a Hebrew girl, Elcia (Claire Booth). Things are complicated
by the fact that Faraone’s wife, Amaltea (Christine Rice) has secretly
converted to Judaism and supports the Jews, whilst the high priest, Mambre
(Nicky Spence), is active against them. Things start with Egpyt in darkness,
with a chorus and then prayer from Mose, and then proceed in typical opera
seria fashion, but with inclusion of some rather dramatic choruses and an
unusually prominent bass role in Mose. The Colbran role was Elcia, the Hebrew
girl, so it was she who closed act two with a spectacular solo. But Rossini had
a trick up his sleeve, and with act three moved well away from conventional
opera seria with a mainly orchestral crossing of the Red Sea designed to show
off the scenic splendour. In fact, the first night audience laughed and the
opera remains something of challenge. Poutney and designer Raimund Bauer came
up with their own highly theatrical but very simple solution.

The opera opened in virtual darkness, with a central white light diminishing
leaving the opening choral ensemble, and then the solo for Mose (Sebestyen), in
complete darkness. When light did come on, the set looked like an explosion in
a paint factory, everything and everyone was a riot of colour. The set was a
pair of huge movable textured screens, one red and one blue, in front of which
were risers. The Children of Israel were dressed in blue/green/purple, whilst
the Egyptians were in red/yellow/orange, to highly vivid effect especially as
the face make-up reflected this. The Israelites were in 20th century workers
style uniforms with the women in headscarves, the Egyptians were more formally
dressed, the men of the chorus wearing fezzes. Osiride (David Alegret) was in a
suit, and the rest of the Egyptian royal family mixed styles but had Egyptian
head-dresses. My companion commented that the costumes with their use of colour
and all over pattern reminded him of the work of the Serbian painter and
designer Bernat Klein.

Within this, Pountney gave us a very straightforward production of
Rossini’s drama, with few if any axes to grind. There were hints of links to
modernity, in the costumes and the behaviour of the choruses (the way the
Israelites prayed for instance), but everything was intelligently suggested
rather than pressed on you. Rossini’s music is difficult, and his musical
structures are large scale, and it was admirable the way Pountney and his cast
articulated the drama without you ever feeling like they were keeping you
entertained as can happen in opera seria. It helped that all the
soloists were of a very high order.

In Rossini’s opera seria, there is a general rule that you are
never alone; arias are relatively rare (until the heroine’s final scene, when
Colbran got to come centre stage), and can often be accompanied by chorus.
Solos develop into duets, and duets develop into quartets, Rossini seems to
have taken a highly fluid view of drama and Pountney, his cast and Carlo Rizzi
in the pit, made this work.

Singing the Colbran role of Elcia, Claire Booth really came into her own
with Elcia’s final scene which closes act two. Before that, the character is
a little one-sided, spending rather too much time drooping. Pountney, Booth and
Alegret brought a rather nice suggestion of domination/submission into the
Elcia/Osiride relationship. They have two duets, each powerful with the second
rather disturbing (Alegret leading a blindfolded Booth onto the stage), this
latter is interrupted and they are discovered, so Rossini leads us into the
spectacular quartet sung by Alegret, Booth, Rice and Spence.

At first, I had to admit that I thought perhaps Booth’s voice was too
light for the role. She had flexibility, but did she have the power and
darkness in the lower voice, which Colbran (probably a mezzo-soprano with a
high extension) seems to have had? Booth blended beautifully with Alegret in
their duets, and with Leah Marian Jones, in another moving duet. But in the
closing scenes of act two, she came into her own and revealed a wonderful
armoury of fire-power in her voice which gave us all of the vocal fireworks
necessary, yet all aligned to a powerfully dramatic performance. This
performance was part of WNO’s Music and Madness season and it was
clear that Booth’s Elcia was well on her way.

Spanish tenor David Alegret has sung Rossini tenor roles for Garsington in
the UK and extensively all over Europe. He has the admirable combination of a
tall-slim frame (unusual in a tenor), and a flexible, high-lying voice which
fits Rossini’s complex music. It has to be said that his voice has a certain,
narrow-focussed edginess to it, but he always used this expressively. And he
combined a superb technique, with a fearlessness in the high lying range. The
character of Osiride is not the most sympathetic, secretly in love with Elcia
he wants to keep the Israelites in Egypt purely so that he can see her.

The two other roles, apart from Elcia, who get real solos are Faraone and
his wife Amaltea. Foster-Williams impressed greatly as Faraone, making the
character quite strong even though he has to spend the opera vacillating,
alternately freeing and not-freeing the Israelites. Foster-Williams was both
musical and dramatic in his solo, with an admirable facility for passagework,
but it was the entirety and completeness of his performance which really
impressed. The same was true of Christine Rice as Amaltea. This is not the most
dramatically necessary of roles, but she had a superb solo in act two and
participated in the famous quartet, as well as being dramatically vivid in the
rest of the opera. But Rice brought her rich tones and an expressive facility
in to passagework to bear and drew us in. This was a great example of a strong
and intelligent singer making a role work for her.

The role of Mose, though the title role, is not the biggest in the opera,
but then having a bass singing the title role in an opera seria was
still something of a novelty. Sebestyen certainly had the physique du
, looking very much the Old Testament prophet and he brought the same
level of authority to Mose’s series of prayers and imprecations. Mose does
not take part in the opera seria shenanigins, he simply appears and
disappears, spending his time either praying to God or hurling abuse at the
Egyptians. This Sebestyen did extremely well (I am sure he is a highly
sophisticated singer and capable of far more in other roles!), and topped a
fine performance with his lovely opening of the famous prayer in act three.

Aronne (Moses’ brother Aaron) is not the largest of roles but Barry Banks
who sang it is also singing Arnold in WNO’s performances of Guillaume
! Banks brought a high degree of drama and a vivid sense of the
character’s anger and downright nastiness to the role, and his always
characterful voice was well differentiated from Alegret’s in the ensembles,
which is always a nice point. The quartet in act two is unusual because Rossini
scores it for soprano, mezzo-soprano and two tenors, which certainly requires a
nice differentiation in style and timbre, something that Alegret and Banks were
clearly aware of.

The third tenor in all this was that vicious High Priest, Mambre played with
relish by Nicky Spence. In fact, the libretto is relatively sympathetic to
Mambre, he is devoted to his own Gods and believes that Mose is simply a
charlatan. Spence is one of those singers who seems incapable of giving a
boring performance and he is on something of a Rossini roll at the moment.
Having seen him as Iago in Buxton Festival’s Otello last year, it
was good to see and hear him back in action as Mambre (and he is singing in
Guillaume Tell too).

Leah-Marian Jones sang the relatively small role of Amenofi, a Hebrew woman,
and she use her familiar mellifluous tones in sympathetic duet with Claire

Another character in all this was the chorus. Pountney had them divided into
two, half Israelites and half Egyptians, but staged it so that the entire
chorus participated in all the action (for the prayer in act three they hovered
discreetly almost off stage; in darkness but able to contribute). And the
chorus was magnificent. One of the joys of this opera was the way Rossini took
the opera/oratorio form (Lent called for such things in Italy) and gave it a
highly dramatic context. Not only does he write good choruses, but he gives the
chorus dramatic role. And the WNO Chorus, chorus master Alexander Martin, were
clearly on thrilling, peak form.

As were the WNO Orchestra, playing superbly for Carlo Rizzi. Rossini pushed
orchestral as well as vocal boundaries, making the orchestral part far more
complex. Rizzi clearly has a good feel for this period of music and made the
piece flow beautifully, keeping pace just right and never making it feel rushed
but never over indulging. The orchestra followed him, and we were treated to
some lovely individual solo moments along the way.

The staging was simple and direct, with the screens and risers being moved
around by visible stage-hands who almost became part of the show. It was clear
that Pountney was intentionaly making this a theatrical performance, and whilst
the rain of fire from heaven at the end of act one was a little disappointing,
the crossing of the Red Sea with the screens parting and a billowing wave of
silk covering Faraone and Mambre, was very effective.

This was one of the most satisfying Rossini opera seria that I have
ever heard in the theatre. Poutney, Rizzi and their cast not only brought a
high degree of musicality to the work, but they made dramatic sense too. You
never felt preached to, and you never felt that the performers were struggling
to entertain you in one of the long arias or ensembles, instead were were
treated to a superbly dramatic whole which paid Rossini the compliment of
taking him seriously as a really gifted dramatist.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

David Alegret: Osiride, Andrew Foster-Williams: Faraone, Christine
Rice: Amaltea, Miklos Sebestyen: Mose, Barry Banks: Aronne, Nicky Spence:
Mambre, Claire Booth: Elcia, Leah-Marion Jones: Amenofi. David Pountney:
Director, Raimund Bauer: Set Design, Marie-Jeanne Lecca: Costume Design,
Conductor: Carlo Rizzi. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 3
October 2014.

image_description=Moses’ Journey into Egypt by Pietro Perugino (c. 1482) [Source: Wikiart]
product_title=Mose in Egitto, Welsh National Opera
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Moses’s Journey into Egypt by Pietro Perugino (c. 1482) [Source: Wikiart]