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ClassicsOnline Home » ROSSINI: Mose in Egitto (1819 Naples version)
Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, described as an azione tragico-sacra, combines the biblical narrative of the release of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt, and a more characteristically operatic element in the love of Pharaoh’s son Osiride for the Hebrew girl Elcìa, making this also a typical conflict between love and duty. The piece was reworked in 1822 for Paris with new arias, but is given here in the slightly revised Italian version of 1819, which includes the famous Act 3 Preghiera of Moses.
By David Denton
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Mosè in Egitto
(1819 Naples version)
Libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola
Mosè – Lorenzo Regazzo (bass)
Elcìa – Akie Amou (soprano)
Faraone – Wojtek Gierlach (bass)
Osiride – Filippo Adami (tenor)
Amaltea – Rossella Bevacqua (soprano)
Aronne – Giorgio Trucco (tenor)
Amenofi – Karen Bandelow (mezzo-soprano)
Mambre – Giuseppe Fedeli (tenor)
Coro del Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella, Naples (Elsa Evangelista, Chorus-master)
Wildbad Wind Band (Stadtkapelle Wildbad) (Martin Koch, Band-leader)
Wurttemberg Philharmonic Orchestra (Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen)
The reception of sacred works such as the Messa di Gloria and the Stabat Mater clearly shows that Rossini has been one of the main casualties in the criticisms made of the theatrical and operatic aspects of Italian church music. But the composer has not fared any better conversely in cases where various aspects of church music appear within an operatic context. Goethe was incensed with his well-disposed guests following the first performance of Moses in Weimar: "And you will not deny that your 'Moses' really is too absurd. As the curtain rises, the people stand there praying! This is most unfitting. It is written that when you wish to pray, then you shall go into your room and shut the door behind you. But in the theatre, one ought not to pray" (Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe, 7 October 1828). The intrusion of the sacred into theatre has its origins in the social function of the theatre in Italy where social life was played out every evening in the boxes of the opera houses after and also during Lent – the period of fasting following carnival – when the public did not want to abstain from this institution. The church, or to be precise, the official regulations in line with its ordinances, forbade the performance of opera but did allow the performance of biblical subjects during Lent. For this biblical subjects mainly were combined with an additional secular plot to comply with operatic convention, so that the usual love story could take place within a biblical episode. As far back as the time of his stay in Naples, Goethe's opinion of this practice was withering: "They put on sacred operas here during Lent, which do not differ in any way from the secular other than there being no intervening ballet between the acts; otherwise they are as colourful as can be. At the St Carlo theatre they are performing: The Destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar." (Italian Journey, 9 March 1787). Rossini himself had already made use of the form in his early years in the "dramma con cori" Ciro in Babilonia, written in 1812 for the Lenten season in Ferrara. In this instance the scene most suited to being the dramatic and musical high point of the opera, Belshazzar's feast with the mysterious words 'Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin', was entirely omitted; oratorio-like attributes remained in the opera, which was in fact nothing more than an excuse for the staging of opera during Lent. In Naples Rossini made a virtue of this pretext by consciously making Mosè in Egitto part of the local well-established tradition of Lenten opera and also by a thorough renewal of the genre through the use of innovative musical-dramatic techniques.
This is already apparent in the structure of the opera in which the biblical and interpersonal plots are clearly separated. Personal conflicts are predominantly confined to the arias and duets, while the biblical drama is dealt with in the scenes with chorus and ensemble. The introduction includes the scene set in darkness and the ensuing return of light, while the finale – the other structural pillar of the first act – depicts the plague of hailstones and lightning. Between these there is only one duet and one aria in which the interpersonal subplot takes place, here specifically the love story of the young Hebrew woman, Elcìa, and the Pharaoh's son, Osiride, whose attempt to hinder the Jews' departure from Egypt functions, in a manner of speaking, as the driving force for the entire plot. He is killed by divine vengeance from a thunderbolt – a replacement for the death of all the first-born of Egypt, the last of the ten biblical plagues – which represents, along with Elcìa's despairing aria, the conclusion of the interpersonal subplot at the end of the second act. Unusually for Rossini there is a third act and it is here that the dénouement of the biblical story finally takes place with the flight of the Jews out of Egypt and their passage through the divided Red Sea. Rossini did not succeed in improving the second act just here until a second attempt, in the form of a prayer, for the reopening of the opera in Lent 1819 in accordance with a long-standing Neapolitan opera-oratorio tradition.
A comparison with the model provided by the five-act tragedy Osiride by Francesco Ringhieri (Padua, 1760) also shows clearly that Rossini wanted to exploit the conceptual strengths found in opera – its opportunities for chorus and ensemble scenes – with the tragic element concentrated first and foremost on the lovers' inner conflict: Prince Osiride rebels against every convention to be able to keep his beloved Hebrew woman, while she finds herself under pressure from her own people (among them her own father, Gioele, who is absent from the opera), but is still prepared to renounce all for love. Tottola borrowed this tale of conflict from Ringhieri (although the librettist claimed in his preface to have created it himself), but, as might be expected, it is present to a greater degree in the dialogues and monologues of the tragedy than in the opera, which is able to show its superiority with the large-scale ensembles such as the darkness followed by light breaking through it, the plague of hailstones, the prayer scene and the passage through the Red Sea.
That Rossini was conscious of the scale of this major undertaking is shown by several of the letters written to his mother. On 13 February 1818 he declared his "oratorium" to be a "superior genre" and that he did not know if "these macaroni guzzlers will understand it. I do, however, write for the sake of my fame and do not care about anything else". On 24 February he wrote to his mother: "I write little to you as I have too much to do. The oratorio is giving me a lot of trouble as it is not a genre with much popular effect, but is quite sublime and calculated to raise my great reputation". In a letter of 3 March, probably while under pressure of rehearsal only two days before the première, he added: "I forgot to tell you that the music of my oratorio is divine", while scarcely two weeks later, on 16 March, he noted with hindsight: "Certainly I will not write anything more like it because I will not again muster the patience that I did on this occasion".
The invocation Moses makes to God for the restoration of daylight may be cited as an example of Rossini's efforts towards an oratorio-like style. The text that Tottola adopted, unaltered in places from Ringhieri, is largely set by Rossini with a homophonic accompaniment in which dark woodwinds and brass (bassoons, trombones, 'serpentone', horns and only occasional piccolo, oboes and clarinets) give the music a 'divine halo', to use Leopold Kantner's term, which baroque composers had already made use of for oracles, mysterious voices and the like. Rossini's trouble lay in finding the appropriate tone colour from the instruments available to him and imbuing them with majestic harmony, which Paolo Isotta described as forward-looking and already approaching that of Wagner.
At this point, Mosè speaks directly to God using the informal "you" and Stendhal detected that his invocation "Eterno, immenso, incomprensibil Dio" "is perhaps too reminiscent of the most sublime Haydn": there is in fact an almost identical invocation found in The Seasons at the words "God of life! God of love! Infinite God!" from the finale to "Spring".
There is another more obvious association made by Rossini linking his "oratorium" with Haydn's, which he had already conducted in Bologna in his youth: in old age, he commented to his friend Hiller that a "certain higher meaning" ran through The Creation. The effect of the fiat lux occurs at a single stroke in Haydn's work at the words "And there was light" with a blow whereupon everything blazes at once with dazzling sunlight, while in Rossini's version the sunbeams, as it were, pour in: at a sign from Moses, the light streams in with terrific force and into the hearts of the people; chorus and orchestra explode in a long held resolution on C major. There is no melody at all, only a chord of C major that swells from piano to fortissimo, thus creating the wonderful effect of light pouring in. Both examples show how Rossini was drawing on tradition and his predecessors, yet still achieved something entirely new.
The ensembles and the scenes from the biblical plot were of prime importance to Rossini. The commitment that he dedicated to them is reflected in the fact that he exerted no particular effort for the three solo arias, but instead resorted to appropriate music that he had already composed or entrusted the composition to his assistants. It is significant that he found one of Amaltea's arias ("La pace mia smarrita") in his "conventional" oratorio Ciro in Babilonia, where it was originally sung by Amira during the first act as "Vorrei veder lo sposo" as a virtuoso piece, it also suited the guest singer from the court theatre at Dresden, Frederike Funck, and allowed her to shine in the rôle of Pharaoh's wife. Rossini accepted an indifferent aria for Mosè from an unknown collaborator, "Tu di ceppi m'aggravi la mano", to which the eponymous hero was entitled, mainly out of deference to convention; it also acted as a counterbalance to Faraone's first act aria: striking lead characters, such as Moses, were not supposed to sing at all, for that matter, but were merely to fulfil their status as exceptional characters in declamatory passages, such as the invocation mentioned above. As a weak personality, Pharaoh is swayed between the pleas of his son and wife, Mosè's demands and reasons of state, but does, however, require one aria and for this Rossini entrusted the aria "A rispettarmi apprenda" to Michele Carafa, whom he had met and held in high esteem as the talented composer of Gabriella di Vergy. Carafa probably also wrote five of the recitatives in the second act, as various clues in the original score suggest.
This was the form in which the opera was presented on 5 March 1818. Apart from Raniero Remorini (Pharaoh, bass) and Frederike Funck (Amaltea, soprano), the remaining singers all belonged to the permanent ensemble of the Teatro San Carlo: Andrea Nozzari (Osiride, tenor), Isabella Colbran (Elcìa, soprano), Michele Benedetti (Mosè, bass), Gaetano Chizzola (Mambre, tenor), Giuseppe Ciccimarra (Aronne, tenor) and Maria Manzi (Amenofi, mezzo-soprano). There was considerable encouragement from press and public alike. The unaffected, tuneful and expressive singing, the dramatic and imaginative harmony, as well as the skilful, sublime and expressive recitative were all praised. Rossini had underestimated the "macaroni guzzlers" and was able to report back to home that "the oratorio fills the theatre every evening and Madame Colbran and the maestro are given that sort of spontaneous applause, such as one is deservedly glad to receive from the most educated public in all Italy."
The only disappointment was the staging of the passage through the Red Sea as the Giornale del Regno delle Due Sicilie reported: "The scene at the Eritrean Sea would have met with general approval had the fitter and stage-machinist not been so unfortunate as to have taken their leave in order to bathe in it". At the revival of the opera in the following year (7 March 1820), this defect was even vouched for in the newly printed libretto: "Note: The text and music of the third act have been newly composed so that the fittings may be allowed more room, which, it is hoped, will prove a better solution and implementation". The technical problems had therefore been cited as the reason behind the artistic reworking of the third act. The stage manager, however, required neither a new text nor new music to solve a technical problem, and consequently the structure of the third act remained practically unaltered. What is more apparent is that Rossini was not yet satisfied with the musical effect: there was still something missing that would give the whole a higher significance. In the announcement of the reopening of Mosè in Egitto on the first Sunday of Lent 1819 as early as December 1818, it was indicated that the third act was to be newly composed by Rossini. There is no trace whatsoever of the music for the 1818 version of the third act: only the libretto is extant, which does, however, allow several conclusions to be drawn concerning the layout of the music. Mosè's invocation to God, "Clemente Iddio", followed a recitative that leads into a scene with the chorus, which may have resembled his invocation during the scene of darkness on grounds of style. After Mosè had touched the sea with his staff, its waves receded and the Jews passed through the divided waters of the Red Sea singing the chorus "Dov'è quel cor", the metre of which suggests a repeat of the chorus at the beginning of the first act finale inserted by Rossini as a leitmotiv for the Hebrews. Following a brief recitative between Faraone and Mambre, the opera obviously concluded with storm music to accompany the closing of the waves over the pursuing Egyptians.
According to the stage directions contained in the libretto of 1819, the new version begins with the procession of the Jews "advancing to the sound of joyous instruments". An instrumental introduction of this sort is not found in the score of the new third act, but the march music suggests itself as an obvious solution but without the chorus from the finale to Act One (as suggested by the critical edition of the opera by the Fondazione Rossini (2004)), with the leitmotif that Rossini had included, probably as early as 1818, in the middle of the third act. After the march, a short recitative quickly leads to the main section of the third act, replacing Mosè's invocation, which has epitomized the opera ever since, retaining its popularity to this day challenged only by Verdi's "Va pensiero" from Nabucco. The entire force of the religious element is concentrated in this section of the opera, which is given epic and awe-inspiring expression in the moving prayer: "Dal tuo stellato soglio" ("From Thy starry throne"). Mosè, Aronne and Elcìa sing one verse each, accompanied by a harp and the refrain, which shows extraordinary pathos by virtue of its simplicity, is taken up by the entire chorus and orchestra. At the end of the third verse, the chorus shifts unexpectedly from major to minor: the emotional effect of this master-stroke is genuinely moving. It is the second effect of this type in the opera brought about by a change of key: just as darkness suddenly had given way to light in the introduction, so Moses's prayer of supplication is suddenly transformed into fervent hope. The prayer is given additional weight in the tutti section by the addition of a 'banda', i.e. incidental music, which has admittedly never yet been made use of in modern times for economic reasons. What is worth mentioning here is not only the increased contrast between the solo verses and the refrain for the chorus, but the fact that Rossini copied out all the parts himself (one piccolo, one soprano clarinet, three clarinets, two horns, four trumpets, two trombones, one serpent, one kettledrum), while in later pieces for 'banda', he wrote down no more than the main tune leaving the rest to be completed by the local banda conductor. Rossini finally topped-off the grandeur of his opera with the addition of a wonderful "Calm at Sea" in the instrumental finale thereby bringing it close to a symphonic poem in form, and thus setting the seal on the sublime character of his oratorio-opera.
Amaltea's aria borrowed from Ciro was also omitted "in the interests of brevity". Brevity may not actually have been the deciding factor here, but rather the fact that Frederike Funck was no longer available for the rôle of the queen. Maria Manzi, who now took over the rôle, had sung mostly small parts in Naples and Rossini had never written an aria for her; Amaltea's virtuoso piece would probably have overtaxed her. Since Rossini left the aria in the original score, he may have regarded it as more than just a concession to the virtuoso guest singer of 1818. The piece makes real dramatic sense, as Amaltea has sufficient significance as a corrective to Osiride to warrant her own solo number; and the musical-dramatic structure of the second act profits from an aria between the two ensembles i.e. the duet for Osiride and Faraone and the scena for Osiride and Elcìa and quartet for Osiride, Elcìa, Amaltea and Mosè.
A further adjustment occurred in 1820 when the work reopened again at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. On this occasion neither Raniero Remorini (1818) nor Carlo Porta (1819) was engaged as the additional bass alongside Michele Benedetti (Mosè) in Barbaja's ensemble, but it was Antonio Ambrosi who was given the rôle of Faraone. On this occasion Rossini replaced Carafa's aria "A rispettarmi apprenda" with one of his own, "Cade dal ciglio il velo", probably in order to do justice to the new interpreter's greater virtuosic potential or requirements. In doing this, Rossini was not seeking to call Carafa's abilities into question; otherwise he would already have found a replacement in 1819. He did, however, take advantage of the opportunity to remove the original aria from the score, returned it to its real owner and bound his own composition into the score. At the same time, five recitatives were also removed and replaced by copies of the same, hence the suggestion that they had likewise been supplied by Carafa. Rossini's "occasional aria" hardly circulated at all consequently, as copies that had been made when Carafa's aria was still part of the score were already circulating throughout Europe. Carafa's contribution has been withheld in modern times until now because of the somewhat prejudiced argument that the quality of Rossini's later arias cannot be associated with him. In the present recording Carafa's original aria is used for the first time, while Mosè is allocated the aria that Rossini later wrote for Faraone, a solution chosen by Ferdinand Hérold for Paris as early as 1822; Amaltea's aria can also be heard, and of course the third act of 1819, including the incidental music, which gives the work its "higher meaning".
English version by Neil Coleman
[CD 1 / Track 1] Darkness has fallen over Egypt. In the royal palace all is consternation and Pharaoh (Faraone) too regrets his error, while Osiris (Osiride), his heir, has his own reservations, in view of his love for the Hebrew Elcia. Pharaoh calls for Moses and all call on the God of Israel.
[1/2] Pharaoh recognises the vengeful hand of a god, realising too late his power and promising to let his people go. They are joined by Moses (Mosè) and Aaron (Aronne) and Pharaoh asks Moses to remove the darkness, ready now to carry out his promise.
[1/3] Moses calls on God and, at the stroke of his staff light suddenly returns, to general joy.
[1/4] Moses and Aaron praise God at this proof of his goodness, while Pharaoh, his consort Amaltea and heir Osiris are amazed.
[1/5] Addressing the Egyptians and Pharaoh they proclaim the power of God, and Pharaoh assents to the departure of the Hebrews. Osiris, however, urges reflection, but is overruled.
[1/6] Osiris is left alone, as the others go, appalled at the possible loss of his Elcia. He is joined by the High Priest, Mambre, angry at the apparent triumph of Moses and Aaron. Osiris urges him to use his influence to prevent the departure of the Hebrews by provoking discord. Mambre claims his powers greater than those of Moses, ready now to rouse the people and satisfy Osiris. As Mambre leaves, Osiris is joined by Elcia, come to see her beloved Osiris for the last time, as her people prepare to leave.
[1/7] Osiris begs her not to leave him. As they sing of their sorrow and troubles, a distant trumpet is heard, the sign of the Israelites gathering together, ready to go. Elcia breaks away from Osiris, and they part.
[1/8] Pharaoh's consort, Amaltea, asks Mambre where Pharaoh is; she has heard that the order to let the Israelites go has been revoked and is afraid that further plagues will fall on Egypt; Pharaoh may easily be persuaded by his son. They are joined by Pharaoh and Osiris, the latter telling Amaltea that she should concern herself with women's business. She is appalled at the change of decision, but Osiris points out the imprudence of the planned departure, and Pharaoh declares the divine punishment trickery. He bids Mambre and Osiris tell Moses that none must leave, on pain of death. Osiris is delighted, Amaltea horrified. Pharaoh tells her to be quiet; he has made his decision.
[1/9] Pharaoh must be obeyed, and must consider the good of his kingdom; for Osiris he has praise for his wise advice. He goes, leaving Amaltea to fear the future and Osiris and Mambre to carry out his orders.
[1/10] The Israelites celebrate their imminent departure, Aaron urging gratitude to God, supported by his sister Amenophis (Amenofi). They praise the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Noah.
[1/11] Elcia is divided in her heart, tearful at parting, on a day of such rejoicing for her people. Amenophis tries to comfort her.
[1/12] Moses receives the news from Osiris with indignation and Aaron is aghast at this perfidy. Moses threatens divine punishment, notions rejected by Osiris and Mambre, but the people rise up in anger. Following an argument with Moses, Pharaoh appears, calling a halt to the dispute.
[1/13] Pharaoh declares his will, to the varied reactions of all. Moses strikes with his staff, and there is thunder, hail and a storm of fire, to general consternation.
[1/14] Pharaoh gives Aaron his new decree with permission for the departure of the Israelites. As Aaron goes, Osiris enters. His father tells him he is to be married to an Armenian princess, to his son's secret dismay.
[1/15] Osiris is troubled, and his father wants to know why. They leave.
[1/16] Moses acknowledges Amaltea's help and good intentions, and she hopes that her husband will not change his mind again, as inconstant, Moses says, as the breeze or a leaf blown by the wind.
[1/17] Amaltea hopes her prayers will be answered, uneasy in her heart, but comforted by the Israelites.
[2/1] Aaron tells Moses that Osiris has persuaded Elcia to flee with him. Moses tells Aaron to seek the help of Amaltea.
[2/2] The scene changes to a dark underground chamber, reached by a winding staircase. Osiris is seen above, carrying a torch and leading the timid Elcia. She asks Osiris where he is taking her, divided in her loyalties. He tells her of the marriage arranged for him with the Armenian queen and proposes that they should escape, planning to live with her in secret as a shepherd.
[2/3] A sound is heard above and Amaltea and Aaron appear, with Egyptian guards. Amaltea reproaches her son, and Aaron rebukes Elcia, with the former turning on Elcia, a seductress, and Aaron on Osiris for his rash behaviour.
[2/4] There is general perturbation, with Osiris renouncing his country and Elcia her love. Aaron leads her away, while Amaltea takes Osiris away.
[2/5] Elsewhere Pharaoh is seen with Moses, explaining the danger Egypt is in of invasion by the Midianites, Moab, Ammon and the Philistines, if he were to let the Hebrews, a possible defence of the kingdom, go. Moses rejects this argument as specious.
[2/6] He proclaims the death of the first-born and is led away, a prisoner.
[2/7] Pharaoh prays to the god Osiris. He is joined by Mambre, to whom he explains the threat Moses has made, bidding him summon the nobles. Amaltea enters, ready to reveal what has happened, but they are joined by Osiris, greeted warmly by his father.
[2/8] To the sound of a march the Egyptian grandees arrive, with the royal guards. Pharaoh and Osiris are enthroned and Moses, in chains, is led in by Mambre, followed by Aaron, with the terrified Elcia, Amenophis and some Hebrew maidens. The nobles greet their king, who installs Osiris as his co-regent. Osiris secretly supposes that this change will solve his problem with Elcia. They accuse Moses, rebuked particularly by Osiris. Elcia reveals her relationship with Osiris, urging him to carry out his royal duty and to let the Hebrews go.
[2/9] She goes on to tell him to marry his destined royal bride, but Osiris declares that she will be the queen of his heart. Provoked, he draws his sword, to attack Moses, but is struck by lightning and falls down dead.
[2/10] Pharaoh falls on the body of his son, and Elcia mourns the death of her beloved, ready herself to die.
[2/11] The scene is set on the shores of the Red Sea. The people are led by Moses and Aaron, to the sound of cheerful music. Elcia is supported by Amenophis. Moses tells them that they are now safe. Elcia is reluctant to go further and Amenophis doubts the possibility of crossing the sea. Moses and Aaron reassure them.
[2/12] Moses kneels in prayer, seeking mercy for God's people, who join him in their petition. The sound of arms and distant shouts are heard, as Pharaoh's soldiers approach. The people are afraid, but Moses tells them to trust the power of God. He strikes the sea with his staff and the waters divide, allowing Moses to lead his people to the far shore.
[2/13] Pharaoh, Mambre and their men are amazed at the miracle. Resolved to follow, they are drowned, as the stormy seas close over them. The storm abates and all is calm, with the Hebrew people on the opposite bank kneeling in thanks to the Lord of Hosts.
The Italian libretto may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/660220.htm
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ROSSINI: Mose in Egitto (1819 Naples version)