Rossini’s “Moïse” in a New Recording

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ROSSINI: Moïse / Alexey Burkus, bs (Moïse); Elisa Balbo, sop (Anaï); Randall Bills, ten (Aménophis); Luca Dall’Amico, bs (Pharaon); Patrick Kabongo, ten ( Éliézer); Silvia Dalla Benetta, sop (Sinaïde); Baurzhan Anderzhanov, bs ( Oziride/Voix mystérieuse); Albane Carrère, mez (Marie); Xiang Xu, ten (Ophide); Górecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Fabrizio Maria Carminati, cond / Naxos 8.660473-75 (live: Bad Wildebad, Germany, July 19, 25 & 28, 2018)

Moïse, also known as Moïse et Pharaon, is the rather elaborate 1827 revision of the 1818 Mosé in Egitto, and is one of only two serious Rossini operas that I like, the other being the better-known Guillaume Tell. Although the “Prayer of the Israelites” has been a well-known concert staple for decades (Toscanini even conducted it at the reopening of La Scala in 1946), the full work is still not really well known; it has never been performed at the Metropolitan Opera but is periodically performed at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro.

The recording I currently own is the live 2003 Milan performance with soprano Barbara Frittoli, mezzo Sonia Ganassi (as Sinaïde), tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, baritone Erwin Schrott and bass Ildar Abdrazakov (Mr. Olga Borodina), sung in the original French (as this one is) and conducted by Riccardo Muti. The cast is almost consistently excellent, and though Frittoli does not have a very pleasant timbre, being somewhat wiry, she is a superb interpreter and an excellent musician. Thus I was curious to hear how this performance, also a live one with a Polish chorus, an Italian orchestra, and a cast which, like Muti’s, contains no native French singers, would compare to it.

As for the plot, it revolves around the love affair between the Israelite Anaï and Pharaoh’s son Aménophis. As in the Bible, Miriam is referred to as Marie but for no apparent reason, Aaron becomes Éliézer. God brings plagues upon Egypt in order to persuade them to release the Israelites—locusts and perpetual darkness—and eventually Moses parts the Red Sea and off they go to freedom.

In terms of drama, the first act is unquestionably the weakest. After the overture, we hear one of those cutely-bouncy Rossinian tunes played by the orchestra with chorus, followed by a fairly tedious series of orchestrally-accompanied secco recitatives, before we finally get into the music, which becomes progressively better and more interesting as the opera proceeds. Muti really lays into the bouncy opening melody, which doesn’t fit the character of the libretto one bit, but by the time one hears the “mysterious voice” of a bass asking Moses to come forward and accept the challenge of leading his people out of bondage, we are in a different world. The following a cappella ensemble for Moses, Anaï, Marie and Éliézer is one of Rossini’s greatest creations—but then he returns to his bouncy melodies for the very next scene. This is what I mean about the music being interesting but uneven.

One big difference here is that we get a historically-informed orchestra, and although they play with a good feeling for legato and phrasing they sound a tad undernourished compared to the La Scala Orchestra under Muti. Yet they play with something Muti did not impart to his orchestra, a French sort of elegance; this shows itself immediately in that opening orchestral passage mentioned above, where Carminati pulls back on punching out the rhythm so that it doesn’t sound that much like carnival music, and in fact when the chorus enters there is, to my ears, a greater sense of unity in the musical progression without sacrificing either its brisk tempo or its forward motion. In addition, the Górecki Chamber Choir of Krakow has an absolutely superb blend whereas the La Scala chorus was inflicted with a few unsteady sopranos that affected the vocal blend.

Russian basso Alexey Birkus, who sings the title role, has a voice not unlike that of Abdrazakov; perhaps a shade more vibrant, but not so much so that one shrinks back from an incipient wobble. Moreover, Carminati pulls back a bit on the orchestral chords accompanying the recitatives so that the musical progression sounds more even. Some may say that all this takes a certain vitality out of the music, but what I’m listening for is musical unity, not a series of “punchy” episodes spliced together.

Our Anaï, Italian soprano Elisa Balbo, has one of those even but noticeable vibratos that hark back to the old Italian school of singing which pretty much ended with the coming of Mirella Freni in the 1960s, but she is by no means bad—think of Antonietta Stella. By comparison with Ganassi, mezzo Silvia Dalla Benetta sounds rather underpowered as Sinaïde; she also lacks Ganassi’s rich tone and interpretive qualities. Our principal tenor, American Randall Bills, has a fine, bright, solid voice, but since he is right under the microphone I can tell that he doesn’t quite have the vocal size of Filianoti, and basso Baurzhan Anderzhanov as the mysterious voice, though firm of timbre, is no match for Maurizio Muraro on the Muti recording…but his part, though dramatically important, is quite brief. French pronunciation isn’t a strong suit in either performance; both casts sound as if they’re delivering their lines phonetically, and they probably were.

I think the biggest difference in the sound comes from microphone placement, which seems to be just a bit receded here compared to the La Scala performance. The Muti recording has warmth and amplitude; this one has a somewhat cooler soundscape. Yet in so many passages where the music tends towards the more typical Rossinian “whip-‘em-up” style, I appreciated the fact that Carminati de-emphasized the punchiness without sacrificing forward momentum. Let us say that the Muti performance, though excellent, represents a very Italianate view of the opera—and since Rossini was Italian, this is not altogether inappropriate—whereas Carminati presents the score in a more unified way.

In Act II, I began to lean back towards the Muti performance. The richer orchestral and choral sound did more for the music in this act than Carminati’s forces, and as I heard more and more of both Benetta and Bills as compared to Ganassi and Filianoti, the less I liked their leaner sound and slightly less emotionally involved approach (even in a “French” opera Rossini is more Italianate in approach). The Act II finale put me h in mind of the end of Act I of Guillaume Tell where Jemmy leads the Swiss to take up arms against the invaders, and although Benetta sang with some punch, particularly in the upper register, I felt that she wasn’t really inhabiting the role, and Bills is just a mite too underpowered here.

But then came Act III, and suddenly I preferred this new performance again. Bills sings some exquisite soft passages that Filianoti could not manage, and in general I found that Frittoli’s voice sounded older and rather more worn as the performance went on, whereas Balbo’s sounds continually young and fresh. Carminati certainly does not underplay Rossini’s music, and his players also sound fresh and in command (note, especially, the gorgeous French horn trills). There’s a “Rossini crescendo” in the finale of this act (“Votre ardeur, votre foi chancelle!”), and Carmimati builds it up for all it’s worth without sounding as if he’s trying to start the singers dancing a tarantella. (Well, what do I know? Maybe the Israelites all danced across the Red Sea. I wasn’t there.)

So there you are. Some scenes are, to me, more dramatically effective in the Muti performance, but the Muti is only available as a 2-DVD set and not on CDs. If you just want a really good sound-only performance of this very fine opera, this new recording will certainly please you, and in two-thirds of it I found the performance better than Muti’s. Recommended.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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