Rossini Moïse et Pharaon

Despite the amateurish recording, this first complete recording of the original French-language version of Moise et Pharaon has some fine singing from Norberg-Schulz and Workman in particular

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Rossini Moïse et Pharaon

  • Moïse et Pharaon (or Le passage de la Mer Rouge)

Of all the compositional initiatives undertaken by Rossini during his first Paris residency (1824-29) - the glorious piece d'occasion, Il viaggio a Reims, and its later reworking as Le comte Ory, the two post-Naples adaptations, Le siege de Corinthe and Moise et Pharaon, and Guillaume Tell - the Moses project is artistically the least successful.
This hasn't, alas, stopped theatre managements from staging the adaptation, as often as not in a foreshortened Italian version of the Paris rewrite, rather more frequently than it deserves. For this, Moses himself is chiefly to blame; he was, and he remains, good box-office. As the clerihew has it: 'Cecil B de Mille/Rather against his will/ Was persuaded to leave Moses/Out of the Wars of the Roses.'
None the less, it is a relief to have for the first time on disc a recording of the Paris Moise et Pharaon as Rossini actually wrote it, complete with the concluding Cantique during which Jehovah appears in a roseate glow to the grateful Israelites after the waters of the Red Sea have closed over the pursuing Egyptians. Tacky it may be, but Rossini knew what the Opera wanted, and the Paris version is incomplete without it.
Pesaro's Rossini Opera Festival, whose 1997 production of Moise et Pharaon this is, was founded in 1980 as a joint initiative by the Fondazione Rossini and the municipality of Pesaro. In the festival's early years, agreements were struck with various record companies - principally Fonit Cetra and CBS/Sony. Now, it seems, the festival is being obliged to go it alone. The festival itself and a Pesaro-based bank are listed here as the producer and issuing organisation; the Italian company, Fone, is the international distributor.
If Pesaro itself can fund such an exercise, why, one asks, was it not possible for one of the mega-rich global communications companies to throw in a few thousand pounds' worth of professional advice, in exchange for the privilege of having so potentially important a release on one of its classical labels? I mention this because the new set is a clear victim of the ha'p'orth of tar syndrome.
The principal deficiency concerns the recording, a 'mobile studio' job, we are told. The soloists are generally well recorded (the vocally inadequate High Priest an unfortunate exception), but the overall effect is amateurish. The most blatant example of this is the closely miked, conductor's-ear impression of the orchestra, yet a chorus - in this of all Rossini's operas! - which appears not to have been miked at all. The result, in all the big choral scenes, is a chorus that appears to be permanently off-stage.
Nor, it seems, has there been much post- production work on the tapes. There was probably nothing the editor could do about the loud and frenzied page-turning which emanates from the pit on a regular basis, but there is a lot that could have been tidied away. The production itself (by Graham Vick) seems to have been fairly static. Compared with the rumpus from the pit, the stage itself is almost preternaturally quiet, even in the ballet sequences.
The cast is strongest where it needs to be strong. The leading lady, the Aida-like Anais, is marvellously well sung by Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz. Rossini revised the part, and added to it the great Act 4 Air et Choeur, 'Quelle horrible destinee', for the Paris Opera's leading lady, Laura Cinti-Damoreau. In terms of the weight of the role, it takes Norberg-Schulz about as far as she ought currently to be going; but her performance has tension, radiance and allure. Charles Workman - a fine Renaud in Minkowski's recent set of Gluck's Armide (Archiv, 6/99) - is Anais's Egyptian lover, and the production's other star performer Michele Pertusi is a strong and personable Moses. The rest of the cast are rarely less than adequate. It is not a French cast, so don't expect dazzlingly idiomatic French; what matters is the fact that the text being used is French. Jurowski's conducting is robust, the Bologna playing gutsy and not especially refined.
The handsomely produced 190-page booklet is printed in four languages. It includes texts and translations, a synopsis and a background essay, characteristically epic in scale, by Bruno Cagli. Additional input from an experienced record-company editor would have ensured that we had libretto page references in the CD track list, and track cues in the libretto itself. We might also have had a more practical, less scholarly, array of cue points; a 16-minute 'Introduction' or a 14-minute 'Finale' may be a bona fide structural entity, but on CD it can be helpfu1 to break it down into its constituent parts.
That said, here is Moise et Pharaon on disc at last. Act 4 sounds especially well, with scene after show-stealing scene for Norberg-Schulz, Workman and Pertusi. The musical reworking is very French, very much grand opera in the making; and, that backward chorus notwithstanding, it is well performed.'

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