01 December 2011

Rossini’s ‘Moïse et Pharaon’ at Carnegie Hall

Let my people sing!
Ketelsen (as Pharaoh) and Morris (as Moses), with Maestro Bagwell, the ASO, and the Collegiate Chorale at the ready.

French grand opéra shares with Baroque opera an insistence on a particularly elaborate kind of stagecraft that is entirely beyond the means of most companies in the world today. These operas are like Jerry Bruckheimer movies, and if you remove all the explosions and special effects, there’s not much left. Because of their smaller casts, most Baroque opera stagings can sneak past us using minimalism and updating (very often requiring the singers to strip to their underwear). Grand opéra seldom lends itself to these expediencies: not least because the casts usually are enormous.

Moïse et Pharaon was one of Rossini’s attempts to prove to the French, as he moved to Paris (where he’d spend the rest of his life), that he knew how to write a grand opéra: he remodeled an earlier work, Mosè in Egitto, to suit French tastes. This was important because, as Stendhal’s life of Rossini reminds us (or me, anyway), the French didn’t succumb easily to Rossini’s charms on first hearing, and the composer must have known that winning them over would require extra effort on his part.

Sibling Revelry: Costa-Jackson (Marie) and Morris (Moses)

Thus Moïse features a rain of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, and all sorts of Cecil B. DeMille effects* — plus infectious melodies and dazzling singing, of the sort that Rossini was bound by nature to provide any time he set his pen to paper. Moïse isn’t Rossini’s best work, by far, but performing it in concert, without the flashpots and thunder machines, permits a listener to concentrate on the music — and the score bears up well, perhaps surprisingly so. The subject matter and the significance of the chorus do make Moïse stripped of scenery feel like an oratorio, but it’s rather a good one.

Certainly the concert performance at Carnegie Hall on 30 November gave us about as strong a musical interpretation as Moïse is liable to get in this country today, with a strong cast of reputable soloists, the ever-ready American Symphony Orchestra, and the massive forces of the Collegiate Chorale, proportioned amply enough for any grand opéra.

The gang’s all here.

Even Rossini might have been satisfied to hear an ensemble that matched his ambitions, both in size and in skill, for this piece, and as is so often the case when I hear the Collegiate Chorale, I find myself feeling decidedly lucky to hear them. No matter how lush or lofty the composer’s conception, I listen to the Collegiate Chorale and think, “Yep, that’s just about exactly what he wanted.” The group alternately portrayed Egyptians and Israelites (it wasn’t always clear which was which), assigned some of Rossini’s most inventive writing.

Not least because of those choral passages, just about everybody sees Moïse as Verdi’s road map to Nabucco, but I hear plenty of Donizetti, too, in the “dialogue” passages between arias. What comes from nowhere and takes my breath away is the purely instrumental piece that concludes the opera: how does any bel canto composer, let alone Rossini, end without singing? Not until Wagner would opera hear anything remotely like this, yet it’s pure Rossini, airy and sparkling and full of delight.

Conductor Bagwell, with Marina Rebeka (left corner).

The Chorale’s music director, James Bagwell, conducted, demonstrating a real flair for those many ensemble passages in which everybody onstage is brought together; in scenes and arias for the solo vocalists, Bagwell elicited new admiration for Rossini’s ability to orchestrate in a manner that’s pleasing and expressive but never overpowering to the voices. Bagwell was far less successful in finding the right dynamics and textures for those sequences in which the orchestra accompanied the chorus: then we got instrumental sound that was almost muddy, when the chorus didn’t drown out the players altogether — the equivalent of the Red Sea washing over Pharaoh’s army.

The principals gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with a few familiar voices, as well as a few I’d heard about. Chief among the latter category is the soprano Angela Meade, who’s been fielding a number of important bel canto assignments in the past couple of seasons, to the point that all of musical New York now seems to have drunk her Kool-Aid. The role of Pharaoh’s wife, Sinaïde,** affords her one relatively big aria but not much room to show me why folks are so crazy for her: it’s a lovely instrument, but I didn’t hear much personality. I’m hoping that other roles will reveal her to better advantage.

The toast of New York, Angela Meade

As Moses, bass-baritone James Morris sounded better than he did before I moved to France, and if he lacked anything in vocal luster, he more than compensated in authority: this was a prophet whom the multitudes would follow without questioning. He also commanded one of the better French accents in the cast, but alas, that’s something that can’t be said for the young mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson, as his sister Miriam (here called Marie). Last season, I admired Costa-Jackson extravagantly in the title role of Gotham Chamber Opera’s El Gato con Botas, and this evening her wine-dark timbre and stunning physical beauty made me yearn to hear her in a number of flattering roles — but not before she improves her French diction.

Illicit romance: Moses’ niece (Rebeka) and Pharaoh’s son (Cutler).

Soprano Marina Rebeka didn’t impress me much when I heard her as Donna Anna in the Met’s new Don Giovanni earlier this season. Here, as Moses’ niece, Anaï, a more interesting character torn between her duty as an Israelite and her love for Pharaoh’s son, she seemed in better control of her attractive instrument, coupling creaminess with agility most gratifyingly. Tenor Eric Cutler’s portrayal of Pharaoh’s son made clear the direct line through grand opéra history to Halévy’s La Juive and to Prince Léopold, which Cutler sang at the Met several years ago: there’s a kind of revved-up lyricism here, a shot of brandy to spike the sweetness of his tone.***

Anne Baxter meets Yul Brynner: Meade and Ketelsen
as Mr. and Mrs. Pharaoh.

For this listener, the real discovery of the evening was bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Pharaoh, providing cavernous yet perfectly pointed sonority. This isn’t Yul Brynner’s Pharaoh: mostly Rossini’s character just dithers, but Ketelsen lent him real dignity and a kind of philosophical heroism. This Egyptian leader is trying to do the right thing; he simply doesn’t know how. Friends tell me that Ketelsen hasn’t been singing much in New York lately, and indeed I may not have heard him since his highly promising New York City Opera debut, as Figaro, in 2004. That’s an unpardonable shame. He’s an attractive artist, his voice is in full bloom, and more people should get to hear him.

Collegiate Chorale has several more New York concerts coming up this season, including a Mikado in April that looks especially exciting — because the great Marilyn Horne is slated to sing Katisha, for mercy’s sake. For more information, click here.

Bravi, tutti!

*NOTE: Rossini also added a ballet sequence to each of his Frenchified operas, because of course without an opera ballet, wealthy Frenchmen would be unable to pick out their next mistresses from the chorus, which functioned much as a shopping catalogue might. Remember, each time you suffer through the ballet of a French grand opéra, that you are witness to an act of prostitution, more than a century after the fact.

**No matter what you think, Sinaïde is not an over-the-counter sinus medication. Several of the names in this opera reminded me of the names of Astérix’s Egyptian friends.

***Not to sound like Opera Chic of Milan here, but I do wish Cutler would do something with his hair. He’s got everything it takes to be a dashing hero — a tenor of legend, really — and yet he looks like a scruffy graduate student who can’t afford shampoo.

No comments: