ROSSINI Mosè in Egitto (Mazzola)
Much as the victim of a street mugging might ask ‘Why me?’, so one’s tempted to ask ‘Why Mosè in Egitto?’, the exquisitely crafted azione tragico-sacra which Rossini completed in Naples in 1819. What, then, was the cue for this 2017 Bregenz Festival staging and why was it entrusted to the Dutch duopoly of theatre director Lotte de Beer and Theatre Company Hotel Modern, a group of progressively minded puppeteers best known for filmed meditations on Auschwitz and trench warfare in the First World War?
The answer, so parts of the production would suggest, is ‘refugees’. With Europe rocked by the Syrian conflict, the plight of the boat people and the larger diaspora of which they were a part, it probably seemed timely to track down an opera concerned with an older diaspora. That this particular story, taken from the book of Exodus, ends with a mass drowning may or may not have been germane.
The closing of the waters of the Red Sea over the pursuing Egyptian cavalry, as the Israelites make good their flight, came close to defeating Rossini’s stage technicians, and some later ones too. So might film be the answer? Possibly. But not as realised here in a treatment where the opera’s stage action is largely suppressed – we hear but rarely see the singers in Act 3 – in favour of dimly filmed images of insect-like puppets approaching their doom in broiling deserts and turbulent seas. Even the great prayer in which Moses pleads for his people’s salvation counts for little amid such images. To add to the horror, a preface has been added to this third act in which snatches of a Rossini march are interwoven with a howling desert wind, the squawks of birds of prey and a baby’s cry.
Hotel Modern’s trio of onstage puppeteers are allocated a rather different role in Act 1 in the great quintet with chorus which follows Moses’s restoration of the light. ‘Amazement freezes my heart’, the populace cries, at which point soloists and chorus are made to freeze (except when singing) as jeans-clad techies painstakingly transform them into a visually beautiful but theatrically redundant tableau vivant.
In creating the opera, Rossini and his librettist grafted an Aida-like love story on to the biblical narrative. This mostly plays out in the musically superb second act, where puppets have no place and where the director, faced with the specialised demands of visually static bel canto opera, is patently at a loss. Even the death of Osiride, a genuine coup de théâtre, is ineptly handled. Not that she’s helped by Bregenz’s utilitarian sets and often risibly inadequate costumes.
The company boasts an impressive trio of male leads, led by Goran Jurić’s Moses. Elsewhere there are problems, though these are of passing concern in a staging where neither Rossini’s music nor the needs of the individual players appear to be in the forefront of the producers’ minds.