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8.660473-75 - ROSSINI, G.: Moïse et Pharaon (1827 Paris version) [Opera] (Birkus, Balbo, Bills, Dalla Benetta, Górecki Chamber Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Carminati)
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Parisian Lent Operas and Oratorios
In 1821, French composer Ferdinand Herold travelled to Italy to recruit singers and seek out works to mount in Paris. One of his prime destinations was Naples where Gioachino Rossini’s operas were experiencing triumph after triumph. After the Italians, it had been the spectators of the Parisian Theatre-Italien that had fallen for the composer’s astounding bel canto arias and orchestral scores. Herold’s eye fell on Mosè in Egitto, an azione tragico-sacro that retells the story of Moses unleashing the ten plagues in Egypt and leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. On 13 April 1821, Herold enthusiastically wrote to Giovanni Battista Viotti, the director of the Opera, proclaiming that this opera was one of Rossini’s best and that ‘this work, when well-staged at the Opera on the rue Pelletier [sic], could be scheduled for next Lent’.
Herold’s proposed timing for the opera’s premiere, Lent, may seem curious for during this period the performance of staged secular works was restricted in many Catholic countries. Indeed, it was precisely to circumvent these restrictions that Rossini had chosen a biblical plot loosely adapted from the Book of Exodus for Mosè, which premiered during Lent in 1818 at the San Carlo theatre in Naples.
In early 19th-century Paris, the impact of Catholic observances on theatrical performance schedules was more complicated than in Italy. Before the French Revolution of 1789, theatrical performances had largely been banned during Lent and in their stead, the concerts spirituels featuring instrumental and vocal music were organised. Yet, the separation between State and Church after 1789 had ended the imposed ban and theatres started staging works all year round. The Revolution had not quenched the interest in Christian religion: in the 1790s, a handful of biblical plays, such as Gabriel Legouve’s tragedy La Mort d’Abel (1792), started to appear on the Parisian secular stages. Yet rather than preaching Catholic doctrine, these plays turned old testament stories into family dramas embodying an 18th-century sentimentalist approach to religion that focused on the relationship between God and the individual as intense, natural, and personal.
After Napoleon I reconciled revolutionary France with the Roman Catholic Church in 1801, sentimentalist religion became very popular. This is witnessed in the immediate and widespread success of Francois- Rene de Chateaubriand’s Le Génie du Christianisme, published in 1802. Chateaubriand praised the beauties of a personal and intimate Christian belief. He also made a direct link to art declaring that more than any other religion, Christianity had had a decidedly positive impact on artistic creation. His book not only re-appraised earlier artworks depicting Christian subject matters—for instance, Milton’s Paradise Lost (1674)—but it also encouraged artists to let religious experiences inspire them. The publication was timely, for audiences’ enthusiasm for biblical theatre was on the rise in Paris.
This enthusiasm had first become conspicuous in 1800, at the Christmas Eve premiere of Joseph Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (1797–98) at the Opera. The performance was not only extremely well received, but the oratorio also immediately generated artistic responses, among which a parody in what was perhaps the most sentimentalist genre of the time: the mélodrame. This parody, entitled La Récreation du Monde, was the first in a string of highly popular biblical mélodrames. The Opera’s management was eager to partake in this new trend and in 1803, it began to perform oratorios and biblical operas in the weeks leading up to Easter.
The first biblical work presented at the Opera was the pasticcio oratorio, Saül—a retelling of the final days of Saul, King of Israel and Judah, and his succession by David. The oratorio’s score was compiled by Christian Kalkbrenner and Ludwig Wenzel von Lachnitz out of the most celebrated musical pieces of the time: it included the overture of Haydn’s first oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia (1775) and the chorus ‘Vollendet ist das grosse Werk’ from Die Schöpfung. Yet the authors claimed that its more attractive feature was the mise en action—it was staged with costumes and sets—and thus catered to the Parisian taste for spectacular performances. As such, it was a more suitable and effective substitute for the pre-revolutionary, unstaged concerts spirituels. Saül was indeed very popular, and until 1818, it was regularly performed on or around Easter.
Saül is emblematic of the way the biblical stories were adapted for the Opera’s stage. The plot freely mixed episodes from the life of Saul and David, without observing the original chronology. Several intimate prayers were included to emphasise the sentimentalist nature of the protagonists’ relationship to God. This emphasis on personal experience did not preclude the presence of large-scale crowd scenes designed to show off the Opera’s ability to produce the grandest spectacle in Paris. Saül featured a ghost scene and ended with elaborate celebrations for David’s ascension to the throne.
Such spectacular scenes were a key characteristic of Parisian biblical theatre. Biblical mélodrames such as Le Triomphe de David, which premiered in 1805 at the Theatre de la Gaite, also featured ghost scenes and elaborate triumphal marches and celebrations. It was thus important that the Opera kept up with this trend and in 1805, it premiered a new pasticcio oratorio, La Prise de Jericho, that outdid Saül’s prior attempts. It showed how archangels armed with flaming swords descend onto Jericho, set this heathen city aflame, crumble its walls with earthquakes, and rescue the Jews kept prisoner in Baal’s temple.
This link between biblical theatre and extravagant spectacle was one that preceded the 19th century and was especially conspicuous in theatrical adaptations of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In 1758, the famous stage designer Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni created Le Spectacle de la chute des anges rebelles based on Milton. He exploited the visual effect of perspective painting and state-of-the-art stage machinery to depict the fall of the angels, and he also capitalised on the musical impact of an orchestra of 160 musicians dispersed throughout the hall. Smaller-scale entertainments such as Robertson’s Phantasmagoria, a sought-after illusionistic horror show that toured in France around 1800, also used striking musical and visual effects in Paradise Lost-inspired ghost scenes.
Such ‘Miltonesque’ scenes had been introduced into two early 19th-century biblical operas as well: Jean-Francois Le Sueur’s La Mort d’Adam (1809) and Rodolphe Kreutzer’s La Mort d’Abel (1810). Like Saül, these works premiered during Lent and turned old testament episodes into elaborate family dramas with an emphasis on sentimentalist religious experiences. The librettists largely followed the existing elaborations of these stories found in 18th-century German literature: Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s tragedy Der Tod Adams (1757) and Salomon Gessner’s epic Der Tod Abels (1758), respectively. Yet, they drew on Milton to provide the expected spectacle adding scenes that depicted hordes of devils fighting angels and a grandiose final apotheosis scene where the title characters ascend to Heaven.
Le Sueur had specifically developed the apotheosis in La Mort d’Adam to become the most astounding operatic scene ever presented. It featured over 130 singers, dancers and supernumeraries, a stage-filling three-dimensional recreation of the different circles of Heaven, several pyrotechnic effects and it ended with a series of pantomimic scenes depicting the future of humankind as prophesied in the Bible. While most critics denounced the absence of dramatic interest in the plot and the lack of variety and melodiousness in the music, they waxed lyrical about the staging of the apotheosis. One reviewer commented that ‘nothing more beautiful had perhaps ever been seen at the Opera’ (Journal de Paris, 25 March 1809). A similar, though less extravagant and extensive, apotheosis concluded La Mort d’Abel, which led to a vicious debate between the librettists and composers of these two operas about who had first thought of introducing ‘Miltonesque’ scenes.
The trend to present a biblical opera or staged oratorio around Easter slowly died out in Paris after Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo in 1815. With the return of the Bourbon monarchs came the restoration of the power of the Catholic Church in France and of its influence on the Parisian theatre schedules. Henceforth, no staged performances would take place at the Opera during Holy Week and the pre-revolutionary concerts spirituels were reinstituted.
Nonetheless, revivals of La Mort d’Adam in 1817 and Saül in 1818 had kept the fashion for biblical spectacle during Lent alive. It was probably with this in mind that Herold proposed to premiere the French version of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto during the 1822 Lent season. At first sight the opera seemed fitting: it was a biblical story turned into a family drama and featured intimate, personal prayers to God. Nevertheless, Herold’s plan did not immediately materialise. Mosè was initially dismissed by the Opera’s literary jury and criticised for its ‘wanton’ plot development. It was performed in 1822 in this theatre, but in October and in the Italian version executed by the company of the Theatre-Italien. It would take another five years before the revised French version received its premiere three weeks before Easter on 26 March 1827.
While a consistent Lent opera or oratorio tradition never truly developed in France, the aforementioned early 19th-century biblical operas had a significant influence on Parisian operatic production because of their extravagant apotheoses. With these endings, the French convention of grandiose finales reached new heights, laying the groundwork for the spectacular cataclysmic conclusions of grand opéra—an operatic genre that developed in France in the late 1820s. Notably, Rossini’s reworked French version of Mosè, titled Moïse, is often considered an early example of this new genre.
In light of this convention, Herold’s proposal for staging Moïse at the Salle Le Peletier is noteworthy. The Peletier was a new theatre, constructed after the former opera house was demolished following the assassination of the Duc de Berry on its steps in 1820. It opened to the Parisian public in August of 1821 and was equipped with the newest stage technologies. The original 1818 finale of Mosè, depicting Moses’s parting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian forces, may have presented itself as an ideal opportunity for capitalising on these new technologies. The new 1827 ending was even more spectacular with a vision of Heaven materialising above the Red Sea, for which reportedly some materials from Le Sueur’s La Mort d’Adam were reused to save time and money. Yet, as British musicologist Benjamin Walton has observed, while the visual effects of Moïse were admired, the true triumph of the production was due to Rossini’s riveting score and especially the spell-binding stretta finales. Through their use of repetition and carefully planned crescendos, they overwhelmed and enchanted the Parisian audiences, driving some of them to ecstatic and sublime experiences.
Some philological comments on Moïse
‘Moise, Opera en quatre actes’: this is the simple title under which Rossini’s biblical grand opéra was known in the 19th century. The composer himself always described his original Italian version, Mosè in Egitto (1818–19), as an ‘oratorio’—a genre he regarded as ‘of very high standing’. He was also talking about ‘the oratorio Moyse’ when, in conjunction with Ferdinand Herold, he developed the idea of presenting the work in Paris and suggested it to the then director of the Paris Opera. When, in 1827, Rossini finally adapted the opera to be staged at the Opera, the administration’s internal memos always referred to his ‘oratoire’. With Mosè in Egitto, Rossini had continued a Neapolitan tradition of opera suitable for staging during Lent; with Moïse he had something similar in mind, as Annelies Andries’s article demonstrates.
The French version is now generally referred to as Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le Passage de la Mer Rouge. One of the two libretti printed in 1827 actually uses this ‘full title’, though only on the cover; inside the opera is simply called Moïse, as it is in all other sources, including the full score and piano reduction which were published by Eugene Troupenas the same year and which form the basis for the performing edition produced for Rossini in Wildbad.
There is a fundamental difference between the two editions printed by Troupenas: the piano reduction includes a final Cantique (No. 17 19 ), whereas the full score ends symphonically, like Mosè in Egitto, with the calm after the storm. Rossini had initially composed a concluding chorale (Chantons, bénissons le Seigneur) in which the Hebrews offer a prayer of thanksgiving for their deliverance. It only survives in the Opera archives in a copy of the score with the annotation ‘retire de Moise’ (‘cut from Moïse’). Whether this cut was made before or after the premiere is unclear, but at any rate the chorus was omitted from the full score (published some time after the piano reduction, which had already been prepared while the opera was being adapted). It is unclear whether Rossini made the cut for aesthetic or for practical reasons. The performance in Bad Wildbad follows the printed score, whereas the Cantique was recorded for this album. The spelling of the characters’ names is taken from the same source.
The Midianite camp before the walls of the city of Memphis.
1 Overture. 2 In their camp outside the walls of Memphis, the Hebrews and Midianites feel that their hopes of being freed from bondage in Egypt have been betrayed. Moise (‘Moses’) reproaches them for their complaints and their lack of trust in God and confidently predicts that they will soon be able to return to the Promised Land. 3 He has sent his brother Eliezer (Eleazar) to Pharaoh with his demands. Just at this moment, Eliezer returns, accompanied by their sister Marie (Miriam) and her daughter Anai, and reports the freeing of the two women as a sign of Pharaoh’s willingness to concede. 4 A mysterious voice summons Moise to receive the tablets of the law of the Lord. 5 All bow down before the tablets, and Moise calls a consecratory feast. 6 The Hebrews praise God, dedicating their firstborn sons to him.
7 Moise calls on the Hebrews to be ready to depart the following day. Anai resolves to follow her people and suppress her love for Pharaoh’s son Amenophis, just as he arrives to detain her. 8 He invokes her love. 9 But hearing the Hebrews assembling, Anai sticks by her decision to go. 10 In a rage, Amenophis declares that the Hebrews will no longer be set free. 11 The Hebrews, who are ready to leave, are praising God to the tune of a march. 12 Anai goes to her mother seeking comfort and strength to renounce her culpable love. 13 Moise is indignant that Amenophis has forbidden their departure. Pharaoh arrives and sides with the young prince. Moise raises his hand, whereupon the sky grows dark, the earth quakes and the pyramid is transformed into an erupting volcano.
1 The whole of Egypt is suffering because of the ongoing darkness. The palace courtiers plead with Pharaoh, who finally has Moise summoned. 2 Pharaoh swears to keep his word this time. 3 Moise prays to God, and light returns. 4 All are impressed by this fresh miracle. 5 Only Amenophis tries to question the Hebrews’ immediate departure, but Pharaoh lets them go. 6 All except the sulky prince rejoice at this auspicious day.
7 Pharaoh tells his son that he is to marry the Assyrian princess this very day. 8 Amenophis is devastated, but daren’t admit to his father who it is that he really loves.
9 The shaken prince is visited by his mother Sinaide, who knows about his secret love. She respects Moise and his God, who was also hers. 10 She implores Amenophis to renounce his disastrous passion, which will ruin everyone. 11 After his initial resistance, she allows herself to be soothed by his words. 12 Sinaide joyfully looks forward to the royal wedding and the feast of the sky goddess Isis.
The forecourt of the temple of Isis.
1 In front of the temple of Isis, the Egyptians are celebrating their greatest goddess, led by the High Priest, Oziride. 2 Even Pharaoh feels he has to take notice of what Oziride says. The High Priest inaugurates the feast of Isis. 3 It begins with dancing. 4 By way of conclusion, there is a ballet depicting a hunting scene.
5 Moise arrives with the Hebrews, demanding their promised release. Oziride requires that his people worship the statue of Isis before they depart, something which Moise indignantly refuses to let them do. 6 At this moment, the Egyptian general Ophide arrives and reports that various plagues are being visited on Egypt. Oziride demands that the Hebrews be punished for having angered the gods, while Moise proclaims God’s power. At a sign from Moise, the statue of Isis collapses, and the Ark of the Covenant appears in the sky. 7 Everyone is gripped by amazement and terror. 8 Oziride clings to his gods, and Pharaoh pronounces his judgement: the Hebrews are to leave this very day, but in chains! 9 Moise encourages his people; the Egyptians believe that this time Jehovah’s power has been of no use.
Sand dunes and in the distance the Red Sea.
10 Amenophis has carried Anai off into the dunes. He is ready to renounce the throne and intends to ask Marie and Moise for her hand. 11 Anai implores God not to let her weaken, while Amenophis calls on his gods for help. 12 Moise and the Hebrews appear. Faced with Amenophis’ request, Moise demands that the girl decide between Sinaide and her mother, Memphis and her homeland, the man she loves and God. 13 Anai despairingly laments her terrible fate. Finally, like a woman inspired, she declares her allegiance to God and his laws. 14 She admits that she loved Amenophis and pleads with God to have mercy on both herself and him. 15 Seething with rage, Amenophis reveals that Anai has just pronounced a death sentence for the Hebrews, whom he will deliver to Pharaoh’s approaching soldiers.
16 The Hebrews reach the shores of the Red Sea. 17 Moise prays a prayer that is taken up by Eliezer, Marie and all the people. During the prayer, the chains fall from their wrists. 18 Fear of the approaching soldiers gives way to another miracle: the waters retreat beneath Moise’s feet, and all the people follow him safely through the Red Sea, while the waves crash back down over the pursuing Egyptians. 19 Having reached the other shore safely, the Hebrews praise and glorify the Lord.
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