Here is the full suntimes.com version of my Monday April 19 Chicago Sun-Times review of Chicago Opera Theater's season opening performance of Rossini's Moses in Egypt (Mosè in Egitto) Saturday night April 17, 2010, at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. COT box office: 312.204.8414.
"Moses in Egypt": See this staging, and you'll rethink Rossini
Chicago Opera Theater reveals richness of rare work
There are times when you wonder how an opera would work if it had a different soprano, look if there had been more money, or sound if the Chicago Symphony Orchestra were playing in the pit.
And then there are times when some individual shortcomings or opening night jitters fade from importance, when a new work or a forgotten one is thrillingly brought to life, when the music is so inspiring that you want more, and you just say, "Thank goodness for this beautiful night in the theatre."
Such was the case Saturday night at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park when Chicago Opera Theater gave the first Chicago performance of Rossini's Moses in Egypt (Mosè in Egitto) since it played the McVicker's downtown for one night in 1863. You have only three more opportunities to see this 1818-20 work, one that will change your view of Rossini and your understanding of the history of opera itself.
With this first production of the 2005 critical edition of the work by Charles S. Brauner and Philip Gossett of the University of Chicago, we are far from Rossini's other --and brilliant -- world of opera buffa, which reached its still unmatched peak in 1816 with The Barber of Seville. Instead we are in the midst of the most neglected period of Rossini's life, the years in his 20s when he wrote opera seria,musical dramas, for the San Carlo theatre in Naples.
Of course there are coloratura runs for high voices, unusual nature-imitating effects from the orchestra, an encompassing of a wide array of styles and the development of many more, all things we expect from Rossini's comedies and his plot-containing overtures. But here we have something else: Rossini the philosopher, the distiller of qualities, the keen psychologist. Melodies are not only beautiful and intertwined in haunting, sometimes eerie ways, they match each element of the story and each character in this retelling of the liberation of the Hebrews from their Egyptian captivity.
The orchestra is the frame for this 2½-hour "tragic and sacred action" (including one intermission) and the chorus (of just 18, though they sound like many more) presents the context from the depths of God's plague of darkness on Egypt through the parting of the Red Sea. Through them Rossini offers musical cues and depictions of uncommon subtlety and economy. And even the hokey-sounding idea of an invented love story grafted on to the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh succeeds because the characters of the young lovers are both complex and believable.
The young Italian conductor Leonardo Vordoni does a noble job shaping and guiding this music that is as new to the performers as to the audience. He starts without generational prejudice and takes Rossini seriously. One hopes that some intonation and entrance problems, uncharacteristic of COT, will be resolved for the remaining performances. Director Andrew Eggert has essentially grown up with COT and with designer Anka Lupes keeps our attention focused on the basic scene of ongoing confrontation of two deeply contrasting peoples. Rossini himself called the work an oratorio at times, and Eggert gets that stillness need not be undramatic.
Attendees Saturday could well recall when only a handful of singers worldwide were prepared for the rigors of Rossini's technical demands. Now young artists grow up with them. Strapping American bass-baritone Tom Corbeil somehow embodies both Pharaoh's authority and indecision. As the ruler's hotheaded son, Ohio-born tenor Taylor Strayton has the bulk of the heavily ornamented material and uses it to demonstrate his character's instability and sincerity. Siân Davies, a late addition due to a visa hold-up for an Italian soprano, held the house captive at the end of Act II as she mourned her fate at the end of her illicit affair. As Moses, Italian bass Andrea Concetti wandered into woolly territory from time to time but he always conveyed the prophet's determination to free his people. Ryan Center mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis and COT Young Artists Jorge Preto (Aaron), Samuel Levine, and Emily Grace Righter round out the small cast.
Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi all learned from the Rossini of Moses. You surely will as well.