This was a very fine performance of Mosè in Egitto, Gioachino Rossini’s first account of the struggle of Moses against the Pharaoh to take the Israelites out of Egypt. It was worth seeing not only because it is rarely performed, but also for the excellent singing and the profoundly empathetic conducting on show. David Pountney’s direction (a revival of a 2014 Cardiff production) was not invasive for the most part, as he allowed the singers to perform their respective roles without overloading the action on stage with unnecessary implications, so that the drama could flow without restraints.

Carmela Remigio (Elcia) and Enea Scala (Osiride)
© F. Squeglia

At the heart of the three-act plot are three of the plagues God sent to punish the Pharaoh for his refusal to give Moses consent to lead the Exodus of Israelites out of Egypt towards the Promised Land. In fact, the subtitle it bears, azione tragico-sacra (“tragic-sacred action”), reveals the composer’s intent of combining opera and oratorio. In the story, we inevitably find a conventional love affair between Faraone’s son Osiride and the Hebrew girl Elcia.

Rossini was not really happy with this opera after it premiered in Naples in 1818, two hundred years ago almost to the day (the San Carlo management often matches significant anniversaries, and plenty of them are there due to the long history and musical importance of the opera house). So, in 1827 the composer re-wrote the opera to a French libretto, adding one act and some new music. For more than one century this Moïse et Pharaon was assumed to be superior, and Mosè in Egitto was only resumed in 1937.

Alex Esposito (Faraone) and Enea Scala (Osiride)
© L. Romano

For the first fifteen minutes of the performance, Pountney, with a startling coup de théâtre, left the stage completely black (the plague of darkness), and the conductor had to use a glow-in-the-dark baton to lead the orchestra. When Mosè let the light reappear, we saw two large panels occupying the scene, one blue and one red. The second plague was that of fire and brimstone, and eventually God killed all the Egyptian first-born, including Osiride. The two colours drastically designated and kept divided the Hebrews (all dressed in blue and green) from the Egyptians (in red and yellow). The panels moved and rotated according to scenic exigencies, while in the end their opening simulated the parting of the Red Sea.  

The singing cast were quite strong, with a number of noteworthy performances. In the title role Giorgio Giuseppini delivered a warm, solid bass, and acted the resolute prophet with hieratic boldness. Alex Esposito created an outstanding Faraone with his powerful and penetrating baritone and terrific breath control. Carmela Remigio was Elcia, the Jewish girl in love with Osiride. She has a clear and strong lyric soprano, with a wide range in her tone reaching the mezzo colour. She gave an outstanding piece of singing and acting, with an attractive ornamental vocal style.

The symbolic colours of the production
© F. Squeglia

Her Egyptian lover, Osiride, a complex role indeed for the vocal agility it demands, was finely sung by Enea Scala. Christine Rice was Amaltea, Faraone’s wife who advocated the Hebrews’ cause: she sang with a smooth mezzo of her own, a faultless diction and acting, and a finely deployed coloratura. Marco Ciaponi as Aronne sang with accurate tone and dramatic appropriateness, as did Alasdair Kent as Mambre, the malicious high priest. Lucia Cirillo as Amenofi made much out of her relatively small role.

The San Carlo orchestra and chorus were in fine form. The chorus sang with commitment and passion and the orchestra played with musicality and zeal. Expectedly, the climax was reached with “Dal tuo stellato soglio”, the choral prayer sung by Mosè and the Hebrews. Conductor Stefano Montanari led an empathetic account of the score, his ensemble’s “heartbeat” always emotionally connected to the action. Montanari avoided embellishment for its own sake: every bar of the score was exposed with its innermost power and deep significance.