Marc Chagall was the visual inspiration for David Pountney’s production of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto at the Wales Millennium Centre. Jews were blue, Egyptians were red, and rough-textured blue and red panels formed the set. The colours of the costumes – rough cotton jackets and Tevye caps for the Jewish men, zoot suits and fezzes for the Egyptians – extended across the singers’ faces in streaks of brightly-coloured makeup. One almost expected to see Chagall’s flying goats and angels, but these didn’t appear.

Miklós Sebestyén (Mosè) © Richard Hubert Smith
Miklós Sebestyén (Mosè)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto bears a similar relationship to his later Moïse et Pharaon as Beethoven’s Leonore does to Fidelio: the latter are revised versions, containing much of the original material, but rearranged and with additions. Each can be performed in its own right. The arguments for performing Mosè in Egitto are that its striking opening scene, with the set in pitch darkness awaiting Mosè’s permission for the lights to go back on, is buried in Act II of the revised version; and that the additional dances and choruses which Rossini wrote for his Paris audience slow the piece down and damage some of its dramatic effect.

Mosè stood out in a floor-length white robe, with his flowing hair twisted into horns, reflecting a mistranslation of the Bible (the correct translation has rays of light emerging from his forehead). As performed by the Hungarian bass Miklós Sebestyén, Mosè was a commanding figure with an exceptionally strong, lyrical bass voice (wholly different from the buffo bass we often associate with Rossini), and was well supported by Barry Banks as his brother Aronne. Banks has performed the unusual feat of singing two major Rossini roles on three successive nights (the other being Arnold in Guillaume Tell) and showing great stamina, range and strength in both.

Aronne’s adversary, the Egyptian priest Mambre, was entertainingly camped up by Nicky Spence (who had also taken the role of Rodolphe in Tell), while the Pharaoh was played by the bass Andrew Foster-Williams in a headdress that made some in the audience think of a pumpkin, while reminding others of an armadillo, especially when he turned his back on the audience. Headdress apart, Foster-Williams gave the most striking vocal performance of the evening, and was especially effective in “Cade dal ciglio il velo”, undaunted by the elaborate coloratura and the long-phrased melodies, finely underscored by Carlo Rizzi’s pulsating tempo. This aria builds to an exhilarating climax with a crescendo that would not be out of place in a comic opera, and with two odd faux-canonic woodwind entries that sound a bar out, but aren’t.

Christine Rice (Amaltea) and Andrew Foster-Williams (Pharaoh) © Richard Hubert Smith
Christine Rice (Amaltea) and Andrew Foster-Williams (Pharaoh)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The plot of the opera covers the last three plagues sent by God to punish the Egyptians for their obdurate refusal to set Moses' people free. First, the land was covered in darkness, followed by a plague of fire and brimstone, and finally the Lord killed the first-born, including Pharaoh’s son Osiride. With Osiride, Rossini’s plot veers sharply away from Exodus and turns instead to melodrama (he called it an azione tragica), with a conventional love-interest between the Pharaoh’s son and a Hebrew girl called Elcia, performed by Claire Booth. Osiride’s wish for the Hebrews to remain in Egypt is driven by his love for Elcia, and he is eventually punished for his intervention by being struck dead by a thunderbolt. David Alegret’s curiously light, grainy but attractive tenor (quite a contrast to Barry Banks’s trumpeting Aronne) made Osiride into a sympathetic but rather wimpish figure, and his particular take on the Egyptian zoot-suit is unlikely to start a fashionable trend.

Another invented character is the Queen of Egypt, Amaltea, sung by Christine Rice. In her great aria “La pace mia smarrita” Rice’s powerful mezzo-soprano voice was beautifully accompanied by WNO’s principal clarinettist, Leslie Craven, who made the opening solo sound worthy of a concerto slow movement.

© Richard Hubert Smith
© Richard Hubert Smith

The climax of the opera at its first performance in Naples in 1818 brought the house down for the wrong reasons: the scenic effects showing the parting of the Red Sea were so ineffectual that the audience booed and whistled. Rossini reacted to this by withdrawing the work, only allowing it to be performed again after he had fleshed out the third act with a new number, the moving “Dal suo stellato soglio”, a prayer sung by Mosè, together with the other Hebrew principals and the chorus of Jews, in which they plead with God to part the waters of the Red Sea, so that they might be able to escape the advancing Egyptian army by parting the waters of the Red Sea. The dramatic parting of the blue and red sections of the scenery, the rough surface now clearly representing waves rather than desert sands, made for a splendid culmination of the action, and the Cardiff audience reacted with greater generosity and appreciation than their Neapolitan predecessors.

This was the second Rossini opera (the first being Guillaume Tell) in WNO’s autumn season, currently dedicated to bel canto opera. Given the strength of casting and the confident, idiomatic conducting of the seasoned Rossini specialist Carlo Rizzi, it makes one look forward to 2015 (just revealed) when the company will add more bel canto to its repertory, including Bellini’s I puritani. I can’t wait.

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