Azione tragico-sacra in tre atti. Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes.
I have been watching the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, and just had an urge to review this for the Passover season. Rossini considered this inferior to his later French reworking of it as Moïse et Pharaon, but what will I say! Enjoy.
SETTING: Egypt, 12th century B.C.E. The traditional Exodus narrative with a romantic complication: Osiride (tenor), son of Pharaoh (bass), is in love with Elcia (soprano) the niece of Moses (bass) (!). Also the plagues are totally out of order from the Biblical account.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: (65 minutes)
Scene 1: The throne room of the Palace of Pharaoh.
1: Ah, chi ne aita? After some dark rumblings from the timpani, we come upon the Egyptian royal court in media res on the seventh day of darkness ** (in other words, what will be the start of the second act in the French revision). There is a single winding tune here which recurs over the first dozen minutes of the opera.
15: Celeste man Placata! Moses is brought in and is told by Pharaoh that if the sun returns he will free the Israelites. Aaron tells Moses not to trust the Egyptian, but Moses prays for the return of the sun (which occurs to general relief and rejoicing). A gorgeous quintet ensues ending in an magnificent stretta ***.
28: Ah, se puoi così lasciarmi After a long recitative with the High Priest Mambre (who promises help in the form of inciting the Egyptians to rebel against Pharaoh to keep the Hebrews in bondage) we are introduced to what holds up the liberation of the Hebrews: the love Osiride, son of Pharaoh, has for Elcia, the niece of Moses. A good and energetic duet establishes this plot point **.
42: Cade dal Ciglio There is an aria for Pharaoh * at this point which was apparently written by Michele Carafa although if no one told you, you really wouldn’t know the difference because it sounds like a typical bass aria from a Rossini comic opera.
Scene 2: A vast plain outside the capital.
48: All’etra, al ciel An energetic chorus from the Israelites ** as they anticipate their freedom led by Aaron and his sister Amenofi (who is obviously supposed to be Miriam). A joyous piece.
52: Tutto mi ride intorno! Elcia and Amenofi are experiencing a breakdown of their mother-daughter relationship *. The music is a bit random, and does not really reflect the conflict the libretto is obviously trying to express between the two women.
63: Cielo! The act finale starts with the entrance of Moses who is almost set upon by soldiers on orders from Osiride but Pharaoh counters the command and saves him (his Queen, Amaltea, having converted to the Israelite cause). This is relatively boring until in the magnificent stretta when Moses orders fire to rain down upon Egypt as punishment when Pharaoh does rescind his order to release the Hebrews ***. So Osiride gets what he wants, for now….
ACT 2: (61 minutes)
Scene 1: A room in the palace.
4: Parlar, spiegar non posso Osiride greets news from his father of his arranged marriage to a Princess of Armenia (which didn’t exist in 1200 B.C.E. but who cares) with absolutely no enthusiasm at all positive or negative *. Almost as soon as their duet is over Moses encounters Amaltea and tells her that Osiride has kidnapped Elcia, but Aaron knows where they are hiding and the three go off to find them. (Technically, there is supposed to be a placid aria for Amaltea here which was a recycled piece from Ciro in Babilonia).
Scene 2: A cave in the desert.
17: Dove mi guidi? Instead we get a long-ish interlude while the scenery changes and we come upon Osiride and Elcia in a mild love duet *. He reveals his motivation for the kidnapping (arranged marriage with Armenian princess) and decides that they can just hang out in this cave for the rest of their lives. Elcia, being a smart Jewish girl, knows that this is bonkers, but she still loves the dumb goy for some reason! It does get a bit more energetic when the lovers are discovered.
29: Mi manca la voce A beautiful harp accompanied quartet *** after Osiride tells his mother that he doesn’t want the throne and Aaron tries to reclaim Elcia from him. Simple, elegant, magical.
34: Fiera guerra mi sento An explosive stretta *** as Almatea has her soldiers take Osiride back to the palace leaving Aaron to Elcia.
Scene 3: A room in the palace.
45: Se a mitigar tue cure The scene starts with an encounter between Moses and Pharaoh but the furious if holy aria for Moses (written by an unknown composer in collaboration with Rossini) is cut. Then there is an encounter between Pharaoh and the High Priest Mambre, then Pharaoh and Almatea. At last the chorus shows up * for a jingly bit. Moses has a moment of prophecy: the Crown Prince and all firstborn Egyptian males will die by lightening bolt in a few moments.
51: Porgi la destra amata Elcia reveals her piteous love for Osiride to all ** but also tells him that he needs to accept fate, let her go, and marry the that Armenian princess. It is a despairing number and of no use (it is musically broken up by what then happens to Osiride): He won’t let her go and orders that Moses (who has been bound in chains by his father) is to be immediately executed but instead at that exact moment he is struck dead by a bolt of lightening. Elcia goes on with part two of her aria (in which she upbraids herself) and mourns him to the accompaniment of the court. A pathetic end to the end.
ACT 3: The shores of the Red Sea. (16 minutes).
3: Dal tuo stellato soglio The brief final act has two numbers of interest, the first being a prayer by Moses and the Hebrews *** as they await what G-d will do to get them across the sea (which seems impossible). This is done to the most beguiling harp-flute accompaniment.
11: Son fuggiti! The finale ***, mostly orchestral as the sea is parted, Pharaoh attempts to recapture the Israelites, his charioteers are drowned in the sea.
As with Moïse et Pharaon, the weak link in this opera is the stupidity of its interracial love story. Not that interracial love stories are a bad idea, they certainly are not, but Osiride is a dunce, and no one, even Elcia, should be sad when he gets struck down by the lightening bolt! If anything I wish it had happened in act one! The second act is just postponing the inevitable with its idiotic cave scene (similarly to the third act in Moïse). But at least in the latter case the Nile turns to blood! The most striking thing about the score is how long periods of boredom are side-by-side with brilliant passages (especially a few with harp-accompaniment). The second act especially is awkward with a boring first half hour before getting hit in the solar plexus with two magnificent ensemble pieces. So long as the opera sticks to the Biblical narrative it is all alpha in my book, but that romantic subplot is gamma-land. At least it provides for a lovely end to the otherwise dull cave scene.
Happy Passover and a Blessed Easter to all!