Gioachino Rossini: Moise et Pharaon (1827)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes. The Story of the Exodus, with a twist, Moses’ niece is in love (and pursued) by the son of Pharaoh. This is a French revised version of an Italian opera Rossini had written around 1818 on the same subject with some things added such as the act 3 ballet. It is a forerunner of French Grand Opera. I apologize for the video static (specifically in the first two minutes of the video) this was the only version in French I could find.

PLOT: Egypt, the time of the Exodus around 1300-1200 B.C.E. The Hebrews, led by Moses, demand to be freed from slavery. Anai, daughter of Moses’ sister Marie is in a mutual relationship with Amenophis, the son of Pharaoh and at first she refuses to leave with her people, prompting Pharaoh to change his mind about letting the Hebrews go and Moses plunges Egypt into total darkness.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JeoWIvx57Jg

REVIEW:

ACT 1: The walls of Memphis (Egypt that is!) (47 minutes)

3: The first 20 minutes of the opera consists of a short prelude that is good (if not for the video static) and a 17 minute choral sequence. The second half of the prelude at least is a good little piece with a liberated tone and it flows immediately into the chorus of Hebrews hoping for their liberation from slavery **. Moses arrives and gives them a pep talk not to despair, Pharaoh will let them go or there will be a price to pay! Pharaoh decides to free the Hebrews and they solemnly rejoice.

20: The Anai-Amenophis duet ** is the heart of the act in that it is sandwiched between 15-20 minutes of music making up the introduction and conclusion of the act. This love story is really the only motivator for plot complication so it is good that we know about it early and it comes with a good tune.

33: Another duet (this time more brief), this time Anai and her mother Marie. It is okay but not as good as the previous numbers although you are free to contradict me *. It almost feels like the Flower Duet from Delibes’ Lakme.

38: The last nine minutes of the act consists of a good if somewhat Mozartean finale ** at least at first. Amenophis declares that he loves Anai and has Moses arrested. Pharaoh arrives with his queen Sinaide who release Moses but rules in favour of his son in that the Hebrews are now ordered to remain enslaved in Egypt.

45: Everything changes when Moses calls upon God to cause the sun to go out and the land falls into darkness and as it does there is a great dramatic melody that brings the act to a great conclusion ***.

ACT 2: The Palace of Pharaoh (36 minutes).

0: Some short-term serious prelude music, everything still in darkness and again it is chorus time ** although this time it is the Egyptians who are worried. The royal trio and chorus bumble about in the darkness.

11: After about eight minutes of this Moses arrives and is asked to call on God to have the sun come back and he does so to a very agreeable invocation **. The sun returns.

14: Moses’ song of thanksgiving leads to a quintet ***, a very beautiful number with Moses’ assistant Eliezer added to the works.

27: Amenophis and Pharaoh discuss that the former is to be married to a princess of Assyria. Amenophis doesn’t like this obviously because he is in love with the soon to be moving away Anai so he goes to his mother Sinaide for help and they plot to kill Moses so the Hebrews will not be able to leave. Sinaide’s aria is quite lovely ** and rather motherly which is appropriate. Watch out for the last three and a half minutes in which she becomes more crafty.

ACT 3: The Temple of Isis (19 minutes)

0: Another moment of musical solemnity ** although I am not sure what the point of this act is other than filler because apart from the confrontation between the Egyptians and the Hebrews over a status of Isis nothing happens apart from an excuse for a ballet and the Nile turns to blood, off stage. The music is good though, and most of it is completely original as this act does not exist in the 3-act Italian original. The high priest has a long monologue that is sort of boring but otherwise the scene plays out well. Moses arrives demanding a safe conduct for the Hebrews. The Egyptians are rather indignant and demand that the Hebrews venerate Isis.

13: Suddenly everything goes dark and we have a wonderful little ensemble to harp accompaniment ***. The chorus even ends up coming in on this and it is all really effective. The last four minutes of the act consists of Moses and the Egyptian High Priest getting really P.O.ed at each other and then everyone getting in on what seems to start-stop at first but explodes without ever giving us a good tune.

ACT 4: By the shore of the Red Sea (35 minutes).

11: The act starts with a prelude of nearly four minutes in length which moves directly into a duet between Anai and Amenophis (who just won’t give up). Moses and the Hebrews arrive and Marie is worried about this relationship with the crown prince of Egypt thing. Moses gives his niece the choice of either leaving her people for her lover or remaining with her God. She choses God in an okay aria * that keeps on getting broken up with choral interruptions and Amenophis storms off to get the Egyptian army to drive the Hebrews into the sea. Most of this is done in recitative to a strong orchestral accompaniment. The Jewish-Gentile romance gone wrong part of this opera is really falling apart and serves as nothing but filler to the Biblical story, really, just admit it. Also, I have to say that I would prefer the Italian conclusion of the love story, in which the Egyptian prince is struck dead by lightening at the end of the second act.

22: The Prayer of the Hebrews before they cross the Red Sea **. Finally we have some really good music again.

28: The last seven minutes *** the Egyptian army comes out looking for the Hebrews to bring them back. This is good exciting music as Pharaoh and Amenophis plan on taking Anai and the other Hebrews back with them to slavery in Memphis. The music depicting the parting of the sea, the Hebrews running across and the Egyptians getting trapped and drowned is grade A Rossini storm music. The last three minutes are much calmer and rather thought provoking, the music just floats away.

When this opera sticks to its Biblical narrative (which is most of the time) it can do no wrong, but the only other gig in town, the love story, is rather dreadful and a textbook case of cliche. Also, apart from the first love duet and the queen’s aria in act 2 which is prompted by her son’s romantic motivations, the music involved in this subplot is of a lower voltage than the rest of the score. The third act is dramatically irrelevant but has much better (often original) music. I wonder if I would prefer the earlier, longer, Italian original although much of the music that is in fact part of the Biblical narrative is actually original to the French score such as the entire opening to act 1 (in the Italian version Egypt is already plunged into darkness) and the finales of acts 3 and 4 and the one aria in the latter act for Anai. So who knows? What we have here is a great Biblical opera saddled with a rather obnoxious love story. A- or B+.

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