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

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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 Not having been professionally mounted in New York since the 19th century, the 1818 opera was superseded by the grander, 1827 French revision Moïse et Pharaon, though the original has serious strengths of its own.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.