Scala, Enea


MoseGioachino 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.

SigismondoGioachino Rossini - Sigismondo

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Michele Mariotti, Damiano Michieletto, Daniela Barcellona, Olga Peretyatko, Antonino Siragusa, Andrea Concetti, Manuela Bisceglie, Enea Scala | Arthaus Musik

Updating an opera and setting it in an asylum isn’t a terribly original idea and it does usually have a sense of desperation about it, but there is a tradition of mad scenes in Italian bel canto opera, so it’s not entirely an inappropriate or all that far-out an idea. All the more so since Rossini’s rarely heard 1814 opera Sigismondo actually opens with a mad scene of sorts rather than builds up to one, where Sigismondo, the king of Poland, is still tormented by the loss of his wife Aldimira, who he had executed 15 years ago after accusations of infidelity had been laid against her. The loss and the agonising doubts about the truth of these accusations - or just his inability to accept them - has left the king raving and delirious, his kingdom unprepared for the attack that is being launched against him by Ulderico of Bohemia, Aldimira’s father.

Sigismondo belongs to another traditional opera theme, that of innocent women unjustly accused of infidelity or having their maidenly honour called into question by a jealous admirer who has had his advances rejected. This theme of innocent women whose purity has been impugned would become a popular theme in bel canto and opera semiseria works - Halévy’s Clari, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, Bellini’s La Sonnambula - for its ability to drive the heroine to madness and consequently to the heights of coloratura vocal abstraction. Starting the way it does however, already wading in the depths of madness, Rossini’s Sigismondo would seem to have other ambitions towards a psychological drama more closely aligned to that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello - worked into an opera of course not just by Verdi but by Rossini himself soon after Sigismondo - and to the medieval legend of the saintly Genoveva, the subject of Schumann’s only opera.

Directed by Damiano Michieletto for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2010 and conducted by Michele Marotti, there’s certainly a belief here that Sigismondo - the last of Rossini’s early works written just before the move to Naples that would take his career in a whole new direction - is worthy of more serious consideration and capable of bearing that more rigorous approach. Although there are a lot of familiar Rossini melodies and characteristic touches here (the composer re-using the best elements in later works after the failure of Sigismondo), it isn’t always the case however that the music or Giuseppe Foppa’s libretto are strong enough to bear any real dramatic conviction, but the opera is certainly more experimental in its arrangements than some of Rossini’s earlier work and it does indeed build up to a forceful expression of the situation in an impressive series of arias, duets and ensembles in the distinctly Mozartian Second Act.

As a two-act opera, there’s no great call for scene changes, so the viewer has to bear with the asylum set for the entire First Act, whether they like it or not. Although it doesn’t leave the king not looking terribly regal, rolling around under a blanket in a filthy nightgown with his hair hacked back short, the madhouse setting is not inappropriate considering the rather dark tone that is adopted here, which is more a reflection of the state of Sigismondo’s mind than the reality of the outside world. There are other effective touches that bear this out, such as the three identical Aldimiras who torment both Sigismondo and Ladislao - the scheming First Minister who has betrayed and denounced the former Queen after being rejected by her - and by the other asylum inmates who, since they all carry over into the palatial Stateroom of the Second Act, are clearly intended to be representations of the psychological mindsets of the characters as expressed in the music rather than actual real figures.

The sense of ghostly apparitions haunting the characters also works well within the context of the drama, since (probably no surprise to opera-goers here) Aldimira is not actually dead, but having been rescued from her unjust fate 15 years ago returns in the guise of Egelinda, the daughter of the noble Zenovito. On the one hand this helps restore the king’s sanity when it is suggested that since she looks so like Queen Aldimira she could pretend to be her in order to forestall Ulderico’s attack, but it also reignites the feelings Sigismondo had for his wife, and his guilt over what has happened. It also reawakens the desire and the suspicions of Ladislao, giving the production team the opportunity to restage what amounts to a re-enactment of the attempted rape of the Queen that led to the First Minister’s denunciation of her. If the plot inevitably slips into high melodrama, the staging does however manage to show that there are powerful feelings expressed with considerable skill by Rossini in this near-forgotten work.

It’s tremendous then to have the opportunity to see this work - and many others like it - revived by the Rossini Opera Festival and now being made available on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s particularly interesting to see these works being given the best possible representation in terms of musical performance and staging and being cast with fine singers capable of handling the specific demands of Rossini opera. Such is the case with Sigismondo, which gives the singers the opportunity to really shine if they are up to it and are capable of making these characters even half-way convincing, and fortunately they’re all exceptionally good here. As Sigismondo, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona (yes, it’s a trouser role) brings a brooding intensity that underplays the potential for raving melodrama, her vocal expression of the king’s torment alone powerfully emotive, particularly - as it should be - in the king’s direct encounters with Egelinda/Aldimira. As Aldimira, Olga Peretyatko’s rich, dark soprano suits the nature of her character’s steely determination to resist the injustice of her fate. It’s not a coloratura role, but there are certainly vocal demands in the role, and she handles them more than capably, working particularly well with Barcellona in the ‘Tomba di morte e amore‘ duet. It’s the tenor role of Ladislao however that has more of the coloratura arias (’Giusto ciel che i mali miei‘), which are sung terrifically well by Antonino Siragusa.

Despite the faith the Pesaro team have in it, I don’t think Sigismondo is a 5-star Rossini opera by any means, but this is certainly a 5-star production of an interesting work preceding and prefiguring Rossini’s Neapolitan period that merits the effort and the commitment put into its revival here. It’s well filmed and recorded, looking and sounding very good in High Definition on the Blu-ray release. It’s mostly filmed ’straight’, but the director does use split-screen effects a few times, although only for a few occasions of ensemble singing where it’s actually good to be able to see all the performers. Discreet radio mics are also used by the cast, but the sound and mixing sounds natural in both the PCM stereo and the upfront DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 tracks. The Blu-ray is all-region compatible and contains subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.