In recent seasons, the New York City Opera has largely limited itself to chamber operas. Its newest production marks a renewed ambition: Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, a proto grand opera that ends with nothing less than the parting of the Red Sea. Fortunately this scrappy but worthwhile performance showed that the company can tackle large-scale works on its own terms, albeit with a few stumbles along the way.

© Carol Rosegg
© Carol Rosegg

Mosè in Egitto dates from 1818, and was designed to be religious enough to keep operagoers honest during Lent. Its Biblical subject, many choruses, and presentational character recall an oratorio. Based on the Old Testament, the events deal with the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, albeit with a typically operatic insertion of a forbidden love story between the Pharaoh’s son Osiride and the beautiful Hebrew maiden Elcia. The music has a solemn grandeur and several dramatic and intricate ensembles, most famously the prayer sung by Moses and the Israelites before their miraculous escape.

While inventive and fresh, the performance was frequently hampered by a lack of style and polish, filled with good ideas and promising singers that didn’t quite click. The visuals are dominated by video images (designed by Ada Whitney of Beehive) of deserts and palm trees, which occasionally pan and zoom, sometimes in conjunction with a stage turntable (most dramatically when Osiride and Alcia take refuge in a cave). The effect, while novel, recalls a large-scale, somewhat dated video game. This is abetted by the eclectic costumes, the most memorable of which are the intensely sci-fi Egyptians, all stiff black capes and futuristic gold amor (including a blue-skinned priest character who appears to have escaped from Avatar). The Israelites wear more conventional rags, and Elcia a 19th-century dress. The projections handle most of the score’s big effects, including Moses’ restoration of light (which appears to be the Big Bang) and the final effect (whose closing image, of floating bodies as the Egyptians drown, is rather silly).

Director Michael Counts seems to have embraced the oratorio-like elements of the opera, to an extreme. The blocking is extremely static, and obviously intentionally so – the singers hold stiff poses, not even moving as would be natural in a concert context. Nor do the singers often look at each other. While many of the stage pictures are striking, and the stillness allows the singers to concentrate on the technically demanding music, it never allows the drama to gain any momentum or the characters to develop as individuals, and the design choices are too scattershot to make sense of the opera alone. It is, ultimately, disappointing, a watered-down Robert Wilson without the hypnosis.

While the City Opera orchestra has struggled in recent seasons, newly appointed music director Jayce Ogren has them sounding like a real orchestra, a considerable improvement in ensemble. He does not, however, have much sense for Rossinian style, lacking in both energy and flash. Coordination problems were evident between stage and pit, and the singers similarly seemed challenged by the music’s technical demands and style. Clear Italian was also lacking.

The performance was unlucky enough to suffer a late replacement in the title role. Cover David Salsbery Fry had a strong enough grasp on the music and a pleasant bass-baritone, but failed to be vocally or theatrically commanding, leaving something of a hole in the middle of the proceedings. Fellow bass-baritone Wayne Tigges showed a wider range as the Pharaoh, though the faster coloratura evaded him. The strongest of the men was Randall Bills as Osiride, whose lean tenor cut through the orchestra and whose coloratura was cleanly articulated.

Singing the central role of Elcia, Siân Davies showed a soft-grained voice for this repertoire and her high notes sometimes turned shrill, but she found expressive meaning in the music, and facing the quintessential conflict between love and duty seemed genuinely tormented. As the Pharoah’s wife Amaltea, soprano Keri Alkema unleashed a more brilliant and focused sound, and her big gestures and imposing headdress made her the most imposing figure onstage.

City Opera should be commended for its ambition, and for bringing an underplayed work to a city filled with too many performances of La Bohème. But will a company that only performs a few works a year be able to surmount the expertise deficits that were evident here? We will see in coming years. And despite current faults City Opera still has much to offer.