REVIEW: Moses in Egypt (Chicago Opera Theater)

Rossini’s “Moses” soars from darkness to redemption

 

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Chicago Opera Theater presents
 
Moses in Egypt
 
Composed by Gioacchino Rossini
Musical Direction by Leonardo Vordoni
Directed by Andrew Eggert
through April 25th  (more info)

Reviewed by Mark D. Ball

Tragic love is an alluring theme. It’s even more alluring when the context is something to which we can react viscerally, especially when we can blame it for the lovers’ agony. There were Romeo and Juliet, destroyed by the seething hatred between their families; Vronsky and Anna, trapped in a hypocritical and harshly unforgiving society; Abélard and Héloïse, victims of a brutal religious culture; Rodolfo and Mimì, torn apart by the petulance and perilousness of bohemian life.

Photo 6 So it is with Rossini’s Moses in Egypt, a melodramatic tale of forbidden love between Elcia, a Hebrew slave girl, and Osiride, son of Pharoah, set against the epic struggle of the Israelites to escape their bondage in Egypt. In fact, the connection between our lovers and the Exodus itself is what defines the tragedy, the outcome of a collision between arrogance and wrath on one side, and loyalty and devotion on the other.

To me, regrettably, Chicago Opera Theater’s current production of Moses fails as a love story. This is unfortunate because much of the opera focuses on the doomed couple. But with a nod to the redemption that comes at the end of the story, the production soars in nearly every other respect. It presents a fresh, lean, musically interesting opera with an exciting variety of voices, a dazzling minimalist set, costumes that create the illusion of shifting colors, and an orchestra that plays crisply and attentively. The flaws, which include some strained symbolism, were not difficult to overlook.

Taylor Stayton, who played Osiride, and Siân Davies, as Elcia, sang their roles with individual success, but left me unconvinced that their characters were in love. Of the two, though, it was Stayton whom believability eluded. And this is ironic because his performance otherwise sparkled. Stayton’s tenor voice was effulgent and powerful Photo 3 from top to bottom, yet agile enough for bel canto acrobatics. He sings with brio, and his accuracy is impressive in the musical leaping this role requires. Although his characterization was appropriately conceited (presumably) for a prince of Egypt, Stayton uncovers some unexpected depth in this tormented young man and uses his vocal skill to highlight Osiride’s emotional instability.

Davies’ voice is strong and expressive, though her vibrato sounds shaky and uncontrolled at the top of her range. Her Elcina was gentle, loving, and dutiful, so much so, in fact, that the contrast with Stayton’s volatile Osiride makes their putative love all the more puzzling. Additionally, I must admit to hoping that Davies would take Elcina in the direction of delirium, alluding to Lucia di Lammermoor, but she chose not to do so.

In the role of Moses is Andrea Concetti, whose rich basso has the stentorian resonance necessary for authoritative declamations. Tom Corbeil sings Pharoah, creating a credibly indecisive hand-wringing quasi-villain who stands in opposition to his queen, the realistic and prudent Amaltea, a role that Kathryn Leemhuis sings beautifully. Tenor Jorge Prego, who sings Aaron, has a voice that isn’t to my taste, though the audience seemed to enjoy it. Moreover, he awkwardly missed his pitch a few times.

The principals are musically gracious in their ensembles. They clearly listen to each other, blend smoothly for unity of sound, and yield for individual emphasis. The result is energetic, colorful, textured singing of breathtaking elegance.

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In Act I, the dramatic transformation from darkness to light as God restores the sun over Egypt, symbolized by the key change from minor to major, is sleek and sharply synchronized. Whether intentionally or not, the production honors the well-known similarity between this moment in the opera and Haydn’s Creation to engender a brief but genuinely stirring experience − even for a nonbeliever who appreciates the metaphor of it all. The key change and the orchestra’s swell in these few seconds even brings to mind Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

So engaging is the performance, so eloquent the singing, that by the final curtain, the production’s weak portrayal of love fades into insignificance. I wonder whether this means that Moses isn’t so much a love story superimposed on the Exodus as it is an example of how our focus can inflate the importance of any individual at any point in human history. Along that line, I’m reminded of another doomed love affair that ends with the smart little dictum that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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