Review: City Opera's Grand, Musically Uneven Moses in Egypt

Monday, April 15, 2013 - 12:54 PM

David Salsbery Fry (foreground) in 'Moses in Egypt' at New York City Opera David Salsbery Fry (foreground) in 'Moses in Egypt' at NYC Opera (Carol Rosegg)

The ages-old plea, “Let my people go,” took on immediate meaning when Rossini’s Moses in Egypt had concluded its second act and the Israelites were still captive – and waiting longer than usual in an operatic time zone marked by great deliberation, but one that at least had engaging scenery in the New York City Opera’s Sunday return to the City Center.

In this second season since the company’s near-death experience, this known-about but seldom-staged work fits with executive director George Steel’s repertoire reclamation efforts, and had a shot at succeeding. Not having been professionally mounted in New York since the 19th century, the 1818 opera was superseded by the grander, 1827 French revision Moïse et Pharaon, though the original has serious strengths of its own.  

The 1818 opening scene has no traditional overture, but plunges into a scene of dark eclipse characterized by a spare, ominous, repetitive motif in the lower strings. Is there anything else like it in Rossini? The Act III prayer scene is one of the composer’s greatest feats of lyricism and clearly influenced Verdi’s great Va Pensiero chorus in Nabucco.

Much of the rest is long, static scenes devoted to singing opportunities that keep Moses in Egypt from commanding the stage. Theatrical intervention came in the form of computerized graphics in a production designed and directed by Michael Counts (whose triple bill Monodramas was a landmark in the company’s history), not only setting the scenes but having cinematic mobility with landscapes seen through the changing perspectives of the characters. Stage turntables completed the illusion of characters covering ground during what would normally be stand-and-sing moments.

The production lacked consistency of vision – it was equal parts Robert Wilson and Bible pageant – but not fatally so, particularly since the one Moses in Egypt DVD is a Graham Vick production that sets the bar low with much distracting stage hardware to compensate for lack of action. You could be grateful for the City Opera’s relatively spare Egyptians in stylized headgear and Israelites in generic robes. The one graphic disappointment was the Red Sea: As it engulfed the hapless Egyptians, it resembled a dirty aquarium. But in all fairness, C.B. DeMille’s version doesn’t look so good these days either.

The cast was supposed to be headed by David Cushing, but he’s out sick for the run, replaced by his cover David Salsbery Fry, who gave more of a walk through than a performance, vocalized capably but with little authority. Though Wayne Tigges as Pharaoh generated some heat, his music seemed blunted for lack of Rossini style. The two leading women – Sian Davies as Elcia and Keri Alkema as Amaltea – knew what they were about vocally and dramatically, while Randall Bills (the Prince) didn’t generate much in the way of tenor thrills.

The buck (a big one) stopped at Jayce Ogren, the City Opera’s newly appointed music director: However authoritative he was in A Quiet Place, his Rossini had needless pauses between the numbers, little rhythmic snap and recitatives with such slack tempos that they were dead on arrival. Only ensembles had momentum. Imagine Pierre Boulez conducting Rossini. Though any conductor tends to be a junior member in a bel canto opera creative team, they’re the essential glue in the enterprise. But getting the right notes in the right place isn’t nearly enough. Moses in Egypt barely got out alive – but was nowhere near The Promised Land.


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Comments [3]

Brunnhilde from nyc

Cool Observer....I'm really beginning to like you! You say it like it is.

Apr. 19 2013 01:10 PM

I found the Moses production was dreadful, really dreadful. Not a stick of props or sets, just projections. Please tell me who famously said, "projections are NOT scenery"? If I wanted to see a movie, and a bad movie visually at that, I'd go to the cinema. The realistic desert scenes were done far better by David Lean and Cecil B. DeMille (I completly disagree that these cinematic visions of yesteryear are not much superior to the pixel plagued nonsense employed by City Opera), and the inexplicable, grandiose, abstract projected graphic designs (I mean coming close to blinding you and making people in the audience wince) moving about on their own were like torture and totally anti-theatric for the poor singers who looked "beamed in" in front of it all (has no one ever heard of the perils of backlit photography? Especially with human beings in front!) And the pixel problem: sort of like when your television screen has trouble with the pattern on somebody's tie and the little lines or pixels ripple about on their own to major distracting effect.
The costumes were unbelievably stupid and stylized! Like the original Kiss Me Kate on super steroids --or something out of Flash Gordon's Empire of Ming, the Magnificent. They would maybe have been all right if we were dealing with Assyrians, Zoroastrians in Ur, Nineveh or Sumeria worshipping the likes of Marduk --but we were in EGYPT!!! Men in long black skirts? I mean, Mr. Designer and Director, go to a museum and LEARN!
The choreography was bizarre and insipid, even the singers movements were so stilted, stiff and scripted that they were distracting and inane. Sometimes they stood frozen in some ridiculous, awkward and uncomfortable (and unnatural) position. There were two huge turntables on the stage, so singers were moved like chess pieces (pawns!) on conveyor belts which sometimes forced them to walk backwards!
Luckily, the opera has some grand music, and the singers were pretty good when you could possibly concentrate on them in the midst of all the horrible distractions. The end, supposedly a grand visual finale, inexplicably delayed, was totally anti-climatic. Had a terrible headache after it was over. I am going to buy a good recording and was happy to be introduced to the sounds of it, but why must we endure such pathetically misguided productions riding on the backs of good music and singing?

Apr. 18 2013 02:40 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

There is some music in this opera that sounds like the Cry of the Rhine
Maidens from Das Rheingold. The final chorus of William Tell is also very Wagnerian.

Apr. 16 2013 09:18 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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