A Lenten Indulgence: Rossini's 'Moses in Egypt'

WOO-1205-Moses-300Director Cecille B. DeMille personally introduced his 1956 classic The Ten Commandments by solemnly proclaiming his film's solemn, central question: "Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls, under God?" And he may have thought he needed that lofty pretense after subjecting a sacred story of piety and sacrifice to the full Hollywood treatment, including extravagant special effects, provocatively dressed starlets, and full-blooded, steamy romance.

But DeMille was hardly the first, big-time theatrical artist who pulled out all the stops to entertain an audience eager for both pious observance, and a bit of good indulgent, fun. And when Gioachino Rossini did it, back in the 18th century, he used exactly the same story.

In 1818, Rossini had a chance to write a new piece for the prestigious Teatro San Carlo, in Naples. But there was a catch. It would be performed during Lent, a season when secular entertainment was banned -- and Rossini had been making his name with fairy tales, comic farces, and historical potboilers.

The solution was to find a religious subject with plenty of opportunity for spectacle and romance, and the one he chose was the biblical story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. Unlike DeMille, Rossini didn't go so far as to involve Moses in a passionate romance with an Egyptian princess -- though there is a love affair between a young Hebrew woman and Pharaoh's son. But the composer hardly shied away from spectacle. His opera Moses in Egypt features fearsome plagues of darkness, burning hail and fiery rain, and it ends with the same, awe-inspiring event portrayed by the most famous scene in The Ten Commandments -- the parting of the Red Sea.

The gambit worked so well that Rossini actually used the story in two operas -- the one for Naples, written in Italian, and a later drama in French, called Moses and Pharaoh. The French opera is a bit bloated, by comparison, with additional pageantry, a full-scale ballet and an extra act.

WOO-1205-Moses-300-2On WORLD OF OPERA, host Lisa Simeone presents the leaner, three-act Italian version, from the annual Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Italy, the composer's hometown. The production, by director Graham Vick, raised a considerable controversy. It resets the story as a modern conflict in the Middle East, complete with sniper fire and suicide bombers, and that aspect of the show got mixed reviews, from both audiences and critics.

The musical performances, in contrast, have been well received. The stars are bass Riccardo Zanellato as Moses and bass-baritone Alex Esposito as Pharaoh, along with mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi and tenor Dmitri Korchak as the cross-cultural lovers, Elcia and Osiride.