Shi, Yijie


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.

DemetrioGioachino Rossini - Demetrio e Polibio

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, 2010 | Corrado Rovaris, Davide Livermore, María José Moreno, Victoria Zaytseva, Yijie Shi, Mirco Palazzi | Arthaus Musik

There’s a wonderful double-take moment at the start of this 2010 Rossini Opera Festival production of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio, which turns out to be a thoughtful way to present the work and at the same time manages to strike the perfect balance between the traditional performance and more modern conceptual. The stage curtain draws back at the opening to reveal a final curtain call of a performer for an unseen audience out the back of the stage. His self-congratulations out of the way, the stage hands having moved the sets to the wings, the scene is set for some ancient ‘ghosts of opera past’ to arise out of the packing cases to re-enact a historic performance of the drama of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio.

It’s a clever and effective compromise between traditional and conceptual that works well for this one particular Rossini opera that needs a thoughtful and considered approach. Demetrio e Polibio, a ‘dramma serio‘ in two acts, is Rossini’s first opera, which he started to compose when he was only 14 years old. It was composed piecemeal in individual sections as a commission for the Mombelli family’s quartet of singers - some parts perhaps written by the Mombelli father - customised to meet the requirements of the particular characteristics of the singers, but also written to adhere to standard classical opera drama arrangements of arias and duets, with familiar plot devices that involve mistaken and hidden identities. It’s also one of those Metastasian-style dramas where a significant part of the dramatic action has already to a large extent taken place before the opera starts, leaving the characters in a position to bemoan their fate as they strive to find a resolution over the two acts of the opera.

Before the opera even starts, you need to know that Demetrius, the King of Syria, has entrusted his son to a loyal friend Minteus while he is involved in a terrible struggle over royal succession. Minteus however dies before he can reveal the nature of his royal identity to the boy, Siveno, who is taken in by Polibius, the King of Parthia, as his adopted son. As the opera starts some years later, Polibio plans to marry Siveno to his own daughter Lisinga, but Demetrio, having resolved matters in Syria, has come looking for his son, in disguise (of course) as Eumeno, a Syrian ambassador. Polibius - believing that Siveno is the son of Minteaus - doesn’t accept Eumeno’s claims on the boy, forcing Demetrio to make plans to abduct his own son. By mistake, it’s Lisinga who is abducted, which leads to a stand-off confrontation between Demetrio and Polibio over their respective offspring.

The nature of this ‘dramma serio‘ dictates that Rossini’s first opera leans more towards the model of composition of the 18th century rather than towards the new Italian opera model of the 19th century that Rossini would play such an important part in establishing. The influence of Mozart is also evident in the musical approach in an early La Finta Giardiniera or Apollo et Hyacinthus style, if somewhat less adventurous in arrangements and technique, but it’s surprising just how much of the Rossini sound is evident even at this early stage. The first act is made-up almost entirely of duets, with only the bare minimum of recitative, allowing the bonds to be established between the characters much more effectively than solipsistic arias of emotional turmoil, and it builds up wonderfully towards the quartets that mark the confrontation of Demetrio and Polibio (Siveno and Lisinga are not passive figures in the drama by any means) and the brief ensemble finale. The arrangement may have been tailor-made for the Mombelli family, but it also works to the advantage of the musical drama.

Demetrio e Polibio would still however be little more than an early Rossini curiosity, a pleasant but dull and conventional drama, were it not for the wonderful effort put into every aspect of the work for the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, the first modern production of the work in 150 years. As well as evoking the spirit of the Mombelli family through the period costume ghosts that inhabit a modern opera stage and thereby taking the origin of the work into account, director Davide Livermore also uses the haunted stage element to make the opera something wonderful to watch by employing plenty of Illusionist trickery. There’s relevance in this as well as entertainment, acknowledging the “old-style” theatricality of the work, but also using handheld flames to evoke the sparking of love and anger, while the proliferation of doubles, mirror images and disappearing acts all reflect the shifting identities of the characters. It makes a rather academic work seem much more meaningful and consistently entertaining.

The consideration given towards the presentation of this extremely rare work is also reflected in the delightful performance of the musicians, directed by Corrado Rovaris, and the singing performances. Bearing in mind that the difficulty of the roles as written was determined by the capabilities of the original cast, the singing is good across all the roles. Lisinga has the most challenging singing and María José Moreno takes in all the high notes - sometimes a little effortfully - but with great expressiveness. Demetrio has the most active role in the work as the villain of the piece (or perceived villain) and Yijie Shi demonstrates a fine Rossinian Italian tenor style that suits the role perfectly. The breeches role of Siveno doesn’t have quite so many demands placed on it in terms of singing but mezzo-soprano Victoria Zaytseva is absolutely fine for the part, while Mirco Palazzi’s reliable bass fulfils the requirements for Polibio with characteristic Rossinian verve. In terms of duets and ensemble work, the combination of their voices works beautifully in these lovely little arrangements.

On Blu-ray, this is another lovely package of a Rossini Opera Festival production. The High Definition transfer looks superb, and the stage design and direction is so strong that Tiziano Mancini doesn’t have to resort to video trickery to make it any more interesting. The usual high quality audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 give a detailed account of the fine music and the singing performance, making this curiosity all the more fascinating to listen to. The subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The English subtitles have some curiosities of translation - “No more husband have I, a villain has subtracted him from me” is one example, but they are mostly fine if a little stiff and literal. As well as some words on the production and a full synopsis in the accompanying booklet, there is a fine 14-minute ‘Making Of’ with interviews and behind the scenes footage on the disc itself.