Chicago Opera Theater’s fine cast and superb conductor lead “Moses in Egypt” out of the desert

April 18, 2010

Taylor Stayton as Osiride in Rossini's "Moses in Egypt." Photo: Liz Lauren/Chicago Opera Theater

The Rossini one thinks of is invariably the composer of such rollicking comedies as Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, and The Italian Girl in Algiers. Less often encountered are his serioso operas, such as Otello, Semiramide, and Zelmira.

Give credit to Chicago Opera Theater, one of our city’s most relentless excavators of offbeat repertoire, for kicking off its spring season with a real Rossini rarity, Moses in Egypt, which opened Saturday night at the Harris Theater.

Mose in Egitto enjoyed fair popularity at its 1818 premiere, apart from unwonted hilarity in the climactic parting of the Red Sea, due to non-Cecil B. DeMille-like stage effects. Rossini’s revised version a year later received even greater success, yet during the 19th century, the opera’s highest acclaim came with Rossini’s substantially overhauled French retooling Moise et Pharaon, a ballet and other Parisian fripperies added. Chicago Opera Theater has opted for the tighter Italian version, which at 2 1/2 hours is still something of a haul.

Moses has not been heard in Chicago since Lincoln was president, and it’s not difficult to understand why. There’s a didactic pageant-like quality to the Biblical scenario with the somber back and forth between Moses and Pharoah, a jarring 180 from the musical wit and effervescent spirit of Rossini’s comedies. The score is not top-drawer Rossini, with Moses’ climactic prayer—the music performed at Rossini’s funeral—the only item occasionally excerpted.

That said, if not among his most consistent achievements, there is sufficient variety and melodic richness in Rossini’s Azione tragico-sacra to keep one’s interest with attractive arias, intriguing colors in the orchestra, and effective musical tension created by alternating C minor and C major representing darkness and light. Also, it’s hard not to feel that Verdi learned something about choral writing from Rossini’s imagination and flexibility in his handling of the choruses of Israelis and Egyptians.

Certainly, one is unlikely to hear stronger advocacy for Rossini’s Moses than that delivered by conductor Leonardo Vordoni and an excellent cast Saturday at the Harris.

The most compelling human element in the opera is the forbidden love of Pharoah’s son Osiride for the Israeli girl Elcia, and in a magnificent breakout performance as the conflicted Osiride, Taylor Stayton dominated the production.

A third-year resident artist at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, this young singer is the real thing—a Rossini tenor with the juice, power and flexibility to have a major career.

From his first notes, Stayton’s vibrant lyric instrument made one sit up and take notice. He sailed through all of Rossini’s coloratura hurdles with panache, throwing off high C’s with apparent ease. Also, in a static opera with a lot of public speechifying, Stayton brought a nuanced complexity to Pharoah’s tortured son.

As his lover Elcia, Sian Davies was on the same level, bringing a touching purity of tone and expressive sensitivity to her aria with chorus La pace mia smarrita, and blending beautifully with Stayton in their duets.

Andrea Concetti as Moses in Chicago Opera Theater's "Moses in Egypt." Photo: Liz Lauren.

Andrea Concetti was a dignified Moses, perhaps a bit too laid back in Act 1, but demonstrating apt patriarchal authority after intermission, the Italian bass deploying his sonorous voice to fine effect in the climactic Act 3 prayer, Dal tuo stellato soglio.

Pharoah has the least interesting music, yet Tom Corbeil made a worthy villain, singing well and conveying the indecisive Egyptian leader’s weakness, though his bass-baritone sounded stretched and dry in the upper range (well, this is Egypt).

Regal and imperious, Kathryn Leemhuis was a superb Amaltea, her gleaming mezzo-soprano cutting through ensembles, and making one wish the Act 2 aria for Pharoah’s wife had not been excised. Jorge Prego made a fine Aaron, and Samuel Levine displayed a strong tenor as the embittered priest Mambre. The chorus was on the small side, but never sounded undernourished, singing with weight and dramatic impact as needed

Anka Lupes’ Minimalist unit set consisted of an effective sleek atrium skylight with glass pyramids, rising—a bit noisily opening night—to reflect the Israelites’ newfound freedom.

Director Andrew Eggert wisely embraced the tableaux-like action rather than fighting it, with the principals and chorus arrayed on stage in various ceremonial positions, and stairs leading below to the captive Israelites. Even allowing for a cost-effective production, the stagecraft seemed rather cheesy with a single flashing strobe for the bolt of lightning that smites Osiride. Also questionable was the post-mortem villain—and later the drowned Pharoah and Mambre—slowly trudging down the stairs Night of the Living Dead-style.

Leonardo Vordoni’s musical direction was faultless, the Italian conductor bringing lively tempos, idiomatic pacing, and attentive detailing of Rossini’s score with scrupulous balancing of ensembles and chorus throughout.

Chicago Opera Theater’s Moses in Egypt will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and 3 p.m. April 25. 312-334-7777;

Photo: Liz Lauren.

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