Friday, April 3, 2015

Is Opera Leavened?

There's a surprising amount of classical musical material for Jewish holidays. Handel has Chanukkah covered with Judas Maccabeus, and Purim with Esther. For Pesach, he gives us Israel In Egypt, and then later on we got La Juive from Halevy, and Mose In Egitto from Rossini. There is also Verdi's Nabucco, which, though not directly associated with any Jewish holiday, has themes applicable to Chanukkah, Mendelssohn's Elijah, the title character of which is invoked in the Passover seder, and Bock and Harnick's Fiddler On The Roof, in which Bryn Terfel will be appearing this summer, so it counts.

Now, Passover starts tonight, so wouldn't today be a good day to rant about one of these? I decided to do Mose In Egitto for two reasons. One, it's the one from this list with which I'm most familiar, and, two, I like bel canto.

Bel canto worked on a lot of Baroque traditions. Vocal frills the most obvious. Also the popular cavatina-cabaletta format, which is something like both an extension and reduction of the da capo aria. Less obvious is the return to high mythological or fantastical stories. Baroque operas tended to deal with gods and heroes and highly romanticized foreign locations. This tends not to be dealt with again until Wagner, but it is extremely prevalent in the bel canto era. This tends to be forgotten, as the most popular operas from this period, Il Barbriere Di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, L'Elisir D'Amore, Don Pasquale, and so on, tend to be light fluffy comedies for which the light fluffy music associated with Rossini and Donizetti seems ideal. Lucia Di Lammermoor is the only dramatic bel canto opera really in the standard rep. Dramatic bel canto is making a comeback, though, thanks in large part to Joyce DiDonato, who champions it. La Donna Del Lago took the Met stage for the first time last month, and next season it will see all three Donizetti queens. The oft-forgotten Bellini is also gaining in popularity, and thanks to Joyce DiDonato's recent Stella Di Napoli album, I won't be surprised if we see some of those operas take the stage in the near future.

Mose In Egitto comes from the middle of Rossini's career, one of his Neapolitan operas, written to feature Isabella Colbran. It falls in the same general set as Armida and Ermione, but perhaps is better compared to Rossini's last opera, Guillaume Tell. Rossini did revise Mose In Egitto later in his career, and it became a French grand opera, Moise Et Pharaon. Following it was Le Comte Ory (his last comedy), and then Guillaume Tell, so from that perspective, the two operas are not so far removed in his career. And Guillaume Tell got an Italian version later, so they're sort of on the same page.

The title characters of both are neither tenors nor sopranos, which seems to be the norm. William Tell is a baritone, and Moses is a bass. Speaking as a bass myself, I appreciate this. What I don't appreciate is that in both operas, that low-voiced titular character still isn't the protagonist. The main characters of these operas are, of course, tenors. Arnold Melchtal and Osiride. Arnold at least is a likable character, but I'll admit to not really being sure if Osiride is supposed to be a villain or not, and, to be honest, he kind of ruins the opera for me. Instead I might have focused more on Pharaoh (the French version of the opera is half named after him, after all), and make him a more nuanced character and foil to Moses than a bland villain who changes his mind a lot. Pharaoh is a character already in the story, and one that perhaps could use a bit more characterization. A lot of people complained about how the new Hobbit movies introduced an unnecessary romantic subplot that wasn't present in the book. That's basically how I feel about this opera. The romantic elements are either uninteresting or unremarkable, and it detracts from what I feel does make the opera interesting and remarkable.

Right from the beginning, it's clear that Mose In Egitto is not your normal Rossini opera. Mostly due to the lack of overture. The opera opens more theatrically than you would expect from Rossini, with the plague of darkness. It's kind of meta, if you think about it. When the lights go dark in the theater and the opera begins. There's a short orchestral prelude, and as the curtain rises and the stage lights come up, the plague lifts. And then there is a scena unlike anything else Rossini ever wrote. I would never have believed Rossini could have written it. I would have guessed Verdi. And not early Verdi either. This continuous throughout the opera, the brilliant un-Rossini-like music to the grand miracles. The storm of fire Moses calls for, and the whole final scene with the parting of the red sea, and the absolutely stunning trio-with-chorus, Dal Tuo Stellato Soglio, which precedes it. If not for the love story with Osiride and Elcia, or perhaps even despite it, I would say Mose In Egitto to be a real gem of Rossini's career, and the bel canto era as a whole. Perhaps we can have a reduced version for use at Passover seders? I wouldn't mind Miriam's role being a little expanded, though. Contrary to popular belief, Rossini could write grand opera. It's a shame he didn't write a few more of them.

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