Mosè in Egitto in streaming

27 March 2020
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Di seguito un saggio introduttivo all'opera di Bruno Cagli.

The “Elevated Style”

1. The Rossini renaissance, as we now generally call the revival of those operas of Rossini that were once forgotten and undervalued – the printing of the texts, the performance of the works, and the manner of performing them – has mainly concerned the monumental production of serious operas destined for the royal theatres of Naples. As is well known, this consists of nine operas altogether (eight of which were given at the San Carlo and one, Otello, staged at the Teatro del Fondo during the period in which, after the fire of 1816, the major house was being rebuilt). Without taking into consideration some glorious predecessors, first among whom Vittorio Gui, the major impulse has come from the monumental undertaking of the publication of the Opera Omnia launched by the Fondazione Rossini as from 1971 and, later, by the Rossini Opera Festival of Pesaro which has assumed the far from easy duty of staging the operas themselves, often while the musical score was still being worked on. At a distance of forty years from the launching we can say that all the serious operas of the period of Rossini’s output between the second half of 1815 and the beginning of 1822 have been revived in philologically acceptable versions and have all, some more than others, enjoyed a rehabilitation that in some cases amounts to the sensational. As always happens in the theatre, the Rossini renaissance needed and was able to profit from the contribution of singers who were able to meet the challenge of a repertory that had already come to be regarded as extremely difficult during the last years of the composer’s life. In the first place it became clear that the musical dramaturgy cultivated by Rossini and his librettists was not only far from out-dated, as it seemed to be as the nineteenth century progressed, but in some ways it was more advanced than that to which Rossini had to adapt himself when, in Paris, he took on the grand-opéra style that was coming into fashion. This was able to happen, on the one hand, thanks to the position occupied by the composer in Naples, and on the other hand, thanks to the hegemony enjoyed by Neapolitan musical life at least until the Unification of Italy. But it must also be said that this cultivation was carried on with an absolutely unique variety of choices and directives. Between the dramaturgy of an Otello and the absolute triumph of vocalization in an Armida, between the plunging into a tale of nationalities and personalities such as we find in Maometto II and the classical style restored in supreme abstraction of Ermione, many profound differences are to be found. Not to mention the first stirrings of Romanticism, as it used to be fashionable to define them, of a Donna del lago. An incomparable variety then, and yet conceived in a unity of style that Rossini was well able to maintain (but on this subject, too, the time is now ripe for detailed analysis). The profound differences between one work, or rather, I should say, between one masterpiece and another, decided their fate at the time. If Otello remained in the repertory either in complete or mangled form until the day came when Verdi’s opera replaced it, not one page of Ermione was heard outside Naples (apart from some self-borrowings). Other operas were luckier, and such would be the case with Mosè in Egitto though it was overshadowed by the French re-working under the title of Moïse et Pharaon. The blindness of a certain nineteenth-century line of criticism, a blindness that partially spread well into the later twentieth century, did not allow critics to perceive one essential particular: after his move to Paris Rossini had indeed adapted himself to the various requirements of the French stage, but in no case can the Neapolitan versions of Maometto and Mosè be considered sketches or mere preludes to those destined for the Paris Opéra, as will be shown below when we deal briefly with the fortunes of the latter.

2. Mosè in Egitto had its first performance at the San Carlo on the 5th March 1818, but it was revived in March of the following year considerably revised and with the addition of the celebrated Prayer. This alone would suffice to demonstrate the chronologically central position of the work in Rossini’s Neapolitan period. And that is not all. With this opera Rossini was trying his hand at a particular genre. A few exceptions could be made in the – supremely conciliatory – subdivision of the Italian calendar of those days between God and Punch (as the Roman poet G.G. Belli had it), that is, between Lenten periods of penitence on the one hand and periods of festivities, bacchanales and theatre seasons on the other (the theatre mainly occupied the carnival season, which was already in itself of a different length each year, beginning as it did on St. Stephen’s day, the 26th December, and continuing to Shrove Tuesday). During Lent a great theatre like the San Carlo might put on operas of an edifying nature, akin to the oratorio genre. Rossini had already had an encounter with this kind of theatre in his Ciro in Babilonia. This genre, if we wish so to define it, was, therefore, noble and demanding, mostly having stories drawn from the Bible. Rossini must have been fully aware of this when, in 1818, he tackled the libretto of Mosè, which Tottola had drawn from the play Osiride by the Olivetan monk Francesco (born Pompeo Ulisse!) Ringhieri, who had joined his monastic vocation to that of the theatre, to the rules of the classic theatre and to the French theatre with a sure feeling for the melodramatic. Out of the three rules of the unity of time, place and action, Ringhieri respected only two, the first and the third. The place, however, might vary in order to stage tales of oppressed peoples, divine interventions and miracles not excluding some parallel love interest. These were the unchanging elements of this kind of show and it should not be forgotten that Ringhieri, like others who specialized in this genre, had really and truly read Racine and his late sacred plays, but, like any good churchman, knew how to interest the proletariat and the stall-holders of the town theatres, whilst the supreme author of French tragedy had written his biblically-inspired works for the rarified atmosphere of a young ladies’ school placed under the shadow of the Sun King and his court. In the case of the story of Moses, the liberator before whom, after various other miracles, the seas themselves divide, there was great scope for enjoyable scenic effects, not always easy, if it is true that the difficulty of making a convincing attempt at the last scene was responsible for inspiring the revision with the addition of the Prayer. As though the sublime might avoid the possibility of incurring ridicule. This must certainly have happened, considering the exalted rôle played by this piece, which would follow Rossini for all the rest of his days, and which would be sung to the words Agnus Dei at his funeral and blaze forth, in May 1887, in the square adjoining the church of Santa Croce in Florence when the composer’s remains were brought there for re-interment among the bones of the great Italians. On that day five hundred instrumentalists accompanied three hundred choristers. Later Paganini’s transcription was used in 1903 when thirty violinists from the Conservatory of Pesaro, conducted by Mascagni, played the piece as the veil was drawn from the monument. As if to say that the piece was in and always remained in everyone’s hearts and this justifies, ad abundantiam, the fact that in some way, at this time when we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, the Prayer is part of it.

3. It will prove worthwhile to examine briefly the way in which Rossini tackled a theme and a text that were certainly demanding. We know that in his letters the composer does not reveal very much of himself. Even when writing home he does not hesitate to associate ironic remarks with serious ones or to pass from the Bible to macaroni. His first references to Mosè are telegraphic and in them the work is always generically described as an oratorio. So, for example, on the 9th January 1818 (he had only just got back from Rome after Adelaide di Borgogna) he limits himself to a hint in the postscript:

 I am writing the Oratorio night and day and I hope it will go well.

[Sto Scrivendo Notte, e Giorno l’Oratorio, e ne spero bene.]1

Only a hint, then, with a use of capital letters that one might well digress about. There is something more on the 20th January. After having talked about gold and copper coins and receipts, he concludes:

 I am writing the Oratorio and I am enjoying myself and making a fool of folk. Contracts raining down and may this continue don’t forget to watch the pennies kiss Papa and everybody goodbye.

[Io Scrivo l’Oratorio mi diverto, e cogliono il Prossimo. Trattati a subisso, e che la duri vi raccomando l’Economia mille baci al Papa e a tutti gli amici addio]2

 Ignoring for the moment the capital letters and the punctuation, here we have a bit of everything, from contracts “raining down”, to economical considerations (these are never missing), people made fools of and the Oratorio – is this a sop to religious propriety? On the 13th February he compares the “highly elevated” genre with the Neapolitans and their esteemed cooking:

 I have almost finished the Oratorio and it is going well. It is of a highly elevated genre, and I don’t know if these macaroni-eaters will understand it. However, I am writing for my own glory and I care nothing for the rest.

[Io Ho quasi terminato L’Oratorio e va benone. E di un Genere però Elevatissimo, e non so se questi mangia Macheroni lo Capiranno. Io però scrivo per la Mia Gloria e non curo il Resto.]3

 Apart from the free and easy style, it might be useful to point out that Rossini must surely have been worrying about the “elevated” style that was called for and that was thought to be suited to sacred subjects. He would return to stressing this point a few days later, on the 24th February:

 The Oratorio is giving me a lot of trouble because this genre does not appeal much to the general public but is sublime and what is needed to increase my radical reputation.

[L’Oratorio mi costa assai fatica perche di un Genere non di molto effetto Popolare ma Sublime e fatto per acrescere La mia Radicale Riputazione.]4

 Words leading us to suppose that he aimed at winning the laurels that were reserved for the “noble” and “sublime” genre, adjectives that were very much bandied about when sacred music was under discussion. As if the noble and the sublime were not also pertinent to serious opera tout court without any Biblical or sacred connections – as Rossini would demonstrate in so many operas, from the Neapolitan ones to Semiramide and William Tell. Any elaboration of the theme of these adjectives would, therefore, risk inanity, and perhaps it would be rather more worth while to examine his approach to the text.

4. As was usual at the time, Rossini used to avail himself of the assistance of collaborators as well as self-borrowing from earlier operas. He also did this in Mosè in Egitto. Both of these practices (normal in those days and often used by preceeding composers also, both in Italy and elsewhere) in Rossini’s case are always singular and, if I may be excused the term, extremely significant. In the case of Mosè Rossini concentrated on the ensemble passages, like the Plague of Darkness that, with an inspired dramatic stroke, opens the opera (the fact that in the French version this has been transferred to the beginning of the second act, after a first act including various events, some of them even festive, is a good illustration of the concision of the Neapolitan version as opposed to the version that had to be moulded to the dramatic and scenic requirements of the Paris Opéra). The fact of concentrating upon the big scenes did not oblige Rossini to overlook the solo arias, but this is what he did. Up to a point it is surprising that Amaltea’s aria “La pace mia smarrita” was lifted bodily out of Ciro in Babilonia, an opera of a similar genre. By doing this Rossini was able to enlarge the role sung by Frederike Funk: this was one of the duties that weighed so heavily on composers of the day and from which Rossini had domineeringly freed himself right there in Naples. Here, therefore, we are faced with an exception, but the aria was suppressed in the 1819 revival when Funk was no longer in the cast. It is more surprising that Rossini should have neglected to compose arias for the two leading male characters. In fact, Pharaoh’s aria was entrusted to Michele Carafa, a valued composer and friend: “Caraffino”, as Gioachino jokingly called him, wrote a noble piece, but it still remains extremely singular that Rossini should have avoided composing it. However, in 1820, when the later series of Neapolitan performances took place, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, Rossini decided to write an aria of his own, “Cade dal ciglio il velo” to take the place of Carafa’s “original” aria.5 If we add that even Moses’ aria, “Tu di ceppi m’aggravi la mano”, is not in Rossini’s handwriting in the autograph full score, we may convince ourselves that all the hard work gone into being “learned” and “sublime” was reserved for the great ensembles, of which the first act is an outstanding example from the point of view of dramaturgical economy. The anguished Plague of Darkness is followed by joy after the promise of Moses and the restoration of light. In the same way the finale, ad invicem, presents the joy of the Hebrews who are about to leave, a joy that gives way to grief at the dramatic news of Pharaoh’s revoking of his promise, followed by the hail of fire. In this first act the personal affairs of Osiride and Elcia – divided between love and duty – are dealt with in a duet sandwiched between two huge blocks. In a sense, the second act is structured in quite the opposite manner from the first. Here the quartet and the big ensemble are placed in mid-act, after a duet and the Aria di Amaltea mentioned above, that was later cut. The last part is surprising and forward-looking. Here Rossini, after the aria for Moses mentioned above, at last takes the trouble to write a Chorus, recitative and aria (so described in the autograph), Elcia’s “Porgi la destra amata”, but he outdoes himself, the piece being so elaborate that it develops, in fact, into an intensely dramatic ensemble that surprised the Neapolitans, though the first-night critic praised it:

 Some feeble opera enthusiast judged the cries set to the words “È spento il caro bene” as too heart-breaking, whilst others recognized them as an example of the philosophy that has guided Rossini in the composition of this music.

 Words that we can heartily endorse, as we can with others in the same article. But perhaps it is worth dedicating a few more words to this architecture of the second act.

At the San Carlo serious operas were mostly in two acts. When the case is different there is always a scenic-dramatic reason for it. In Mosè it was necessary to prepare the stage for the crossing of the Red Sea, which posed problems, and still does. So Elcia’s great aria acts as finale to Act Two. Then space was left to prepare for the last part. We do not know the music of the 1818 version, from which we have only the libretto, but it must be said that the definitive version of the third act is, in fact, all concentrated on that stroke of genius, the Prayer. After this Rossini concludes with concise and scorching simplicity. The model, dear to Rossini, is that of the tempest: a short storm, this time at sea rather than on land as in Il barbiere or La Cenerentola. Then, at last, calm. The opera had begun, in the Plague of Darkness, in C minor, preceeded by three simple chords. The sea closes again and the curtain comes down on the painfully conquered key of C major.

5. As can be seen from these simple considerations, a “basic” dramaturgy with high spots in the ensemble passages is a characteristic of Mosè in Egitto. The French version would be called upon to satisfy different requirements and would do so satisfactorily. But the fire that dominates the Neapolitan version is a unique unifying theme, and this is the “sublime” that Rossini cultivated when faced with this arduous subject. What could be better than to consider the fortunes of the two versions, taking into account all that has been said and written about a Rossini “progressing” towards the final work, William Tell. The best way of dealing with this might be to look at the reactions of his contemporaries. The tyro might perhaps be stunned to learn that, in fact, in the early years, opinions differed about the merits of the two versions of Mosè. Certainly, after the first performance of Moïse at the Opéra on the 26th March 1827, the French critical faculty were unanimous in praising the step forward taken by the composer, but they used terminology and viewpoints different from those which, many years later, would be used by critics such as Radiciotti. Fétis, for example, congratulates himself that Rossini had proved to the national school of French singers that “real singing could also be heard in France”. Saying this he exactly caught the sense of the revision: an adaptation to a different language, to a different style, to a different taste, but not at the expense of Italian style, rather the opposite. In any case, in the centuries-long argument between the supporters of Italian music and singing and the fans of French singing and declamation, Fétis joined the ranks of the former. It is not, therefore, surprising that Moïse did not manage to displace the Neapolitan version even in Paris. Seven years after the consecration at the Opéra, Balzac wrote to Madame Hanska:

 Here we get Mosè, La Semiramide, staged and performed as these operas never will be again, and, every time they give one or the other, I go. These are my only pleasures.

[Nous avons ici Mosè, La Semiramide, montés et exécutés comme ces opéras ne le seront jamais, et, chaque fois que l’on donne ou l’un ou l’autre, j’y vais. Ce sont mes seuls plaisirs.]6

 The performances of Mosé that the great Balzac was running to hear were of the Neapolitan version, which had remained in the repertoire of the Théâtre-Italien. And that would be the version that would inspire the novel Massimilla Doni,7 a complete allegorical transposition of the opera and an attempt, of miraculous pertinence, to illustrate the two components of Rossinian language present in Mosè in Egitto, one that for convenience’s sake we may call dramatic and the other bel canto. Musically the components will always be the grave, sublime, pathetic style on the one hand, and florid singing on the other. It would be well to dedicate a few words to this double pathway. Upon the magnificence of the choral passages, the ensembles and the declamatory passages (like “Eterno, immenso”) in Mosè floods of ink have been expended. The Plague of Darkness, the Invocation – described as Haendelian – “Celeste man placata!”, the first act finale, the Quartet “Mi manca la voce!”, the Prayer, mostly known from having been recycled in Moïse, have found critics in agreement. Balzac himself placed “Mi manca la voce!” in an idealized series of musical masterpieces that defy time, including, among others, the Finale of Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Forty-two years later the Plague of Darkness scene was quoted once again during Wagner’s famous visit to Rossini as a prototype of the so-called “music of the future”. At this point nobody talked about the old Mosè with any knowledge of it. But to modern eyes and ears, after the Rossini revivals and not only them, the thing that makes Mosè in Egitto surprising and miraculous is that in this version those numbers, which would be diluted in the French version, are closely bound to one another and form an ideal unity in spite of (may one say it?) bel canto passages and duets. In comparison with its luxurious and occasionally luxuriating Parisian sister, the Neapolitan edition can boast the chaste character of an “azione tragico-sacra” – tragic sacred performance – as Tottola’s frontispiece happily describes it. The quasi-oratorio genre is treated not only with breadth of ideas and a sure hand, but above all without any concessions. Even the love interest, a weak spot easily aimed at by enemies of opera, is contained within the rigid precepts of classical art. Not only are Osiride and Elcia secretly married, which in the view of Ringhieri and Tottola makes their love legitimate, but we find them torn between love and duty, the eternal crux of tragedy. Rather than a drama of individuals, then, we find individuals faced with a collective drama which in the end will crush them and to which they will be sacrificed. If we censure this part of the libretto from the dramaturgical point of view, as some have done, then we must rain fire not only over Egypt, but also over a large part of the history of the theatre.

At this point it would be worthwhile to examine briefly how this aspect has been dealt with musically. We can accept the idea of Rossini, like a two-faced Janus, looking from one side into the future and from the other into the past, that is to Bel Canto (let it but be remembered that the winds of fashion change direction and that Janus stands there immobile and may in his turn be gazed at whenever the mobile element, that is the member of the audience, wants to) and that the stylistic procedures of Bel Canto be not considered as mere hedonism, as was for many years the case. It will be necessary, however, at this point, to count those pieces in the old Mosè that look towards the past: these are the duets (Elcia-Osiride in the first act, Osiride-Pharaoh in the second), plus the three arias for Pharaoh, Moses and Amaltea. We have already spoken of the three arias and their singular history. They are old-fashioned closed numbers which, in the development of the methods of performance controlled by Rossini were considered to be – as indeed they are – either expendable or performable without influencing the outcome of the whole, as in fact already took place when the opera was first performed in Naples. The case is quite different with the duets, ambitious numbers that again make use of the patterns that triumphed in a different Rossini, the Rossini of La donna del lago or Ricciardo e Zoraide, to draw an example from the sphere of Bel Canto. It might be difficult to accept them in an opera that seems to be conceived in an opposing style. It might seem so, but it is not, seeing that in those cases Rossini is dealing with the individual faced with the community. And he resolves the problem in his own way, a way that is, however, pertinent to the dramaturgy (so long as you do not want, at all costs, Romantic drama). The duet “Ah, se puoi così lasciarmi”, that Rossini included in the Paris version also, is the moment in which the two lovers find themselves faced with a situation impossible to resolve. Their Bel Canto rises above human feeling and these characters undergo what also happens to the characters in Rossini’s comic operas: the individual bows to mechanical law, just as in solo arias he falls naturally into the preconstituted form of the affetto – the basic sentiment expressed in the piece. Here, then, singing invokes a superior beauty that surpasses the drama. On the other hand, at the already mentioned high point of the Finale to Act Two, Elcia’s Aria combines Bel Canto and drama in daring and successful synthesis. This dichotomy of accent, modern indeed (without any intention – but then, why not? – of invoking the detachment we remember from Brecht) was also evident to Balzac himself. In Massimilla Doni the Marchese Capraia, noble, rich and sordid, who lived like Diogenes and performed secret acts of charity, represents the lover of ideal beauty and, in music, of Bel Canto. To his adversary, the Duca Cataneo, he says:

 It is deplorable that vulgar men have forced musicians to plaster their expresions on words, on factitious interests... The roulade is the only thing left to the friends of pure music, to the lovers of pure, naked art.

[Il est déplorable que le vulgaire ait forcé les musiciens à plaquer leurs expressions sur des paroles, sur des interêts factices... La roulade est l’unique point laissé aux amis de la musique pure, aux amoureux de l’art tout nu.]

Massimilla explains the sense of all this to an unprepared Frenchman: what remains to the individual, member of an oppressed people (let him be Jew or Italian or, we add, the man who goes to the theatre) if you take this last chance away from him? The two-faced Janus did indeed look towards Biblical and choral drama, but he was also looking elsewhere, towards his old dream of redemption through absolute beauty: to reconquer that look and that beauty, given always that suitable and suitably prepared performers are available, is also the duty of whoever wishes to judge Mosè in Egitto in its entirety and, in general, what we describe as the serious Rossini and, from these works, the Neapolitan masterpieces. For elsewhere too, in the very next opera, Maometto II, private feelings and the obligations of the community return once more to put the purely musical side in conflict with the dramaturgical side. It cannot be a coincidence that these two operas would be the very ones chosen by Rossini for adaptation to the French stage. For, in fact, these are not revisions, but rather differing and alternative versions.


Bruno Cagli

Translation by Michael Aspinall


1 In Lettere e Documenti, edited by Bruno Cagli and Sergio Ragni, vol. IIIa, Lettere ai genitori, Pesaro, Fondazione Rossini, 2004, p. 197.

2 Ibid, p. 198.

3 Ibid, p. 199.

4 Ibid, p. 200.

5 Something similar occurred in La Cenerentola. In this case Rossini asked Agolini to write an aria for Alidoro for the first version of the opera, an aria which was meant to explain the moral of the story. This was in 1817. Four years later, however, in Rome again, he wrote an aria of his own, the monumental “Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo”, especially for the bass Moncada.

6 Letter of the 15 December 1834 in Honoré de Balzac, Lettres à Madame Hanska, Vol. I, Paris, Editions du Delta, 1967, p. 282.

7 For this novel – which the French critics themselves did not understand for a long time (commentators often tried to follow Balzac’s analysis of the opera using vocal scores of the French version and not the Neapolitan one, of which they knew nothing. It is easy to imagine the confusion that arose) – see Bruno Cagli, Da Carpani a Balzac: un itinerario estetico rossiniano, in Rossini, Raffaello e il bello stile, catalogue of the exhibition held at Urbino in 1993 under the auspices of the Accademia Raffaello di Urbino and of the Fondazione Rossini of Pesaro, Urbino, Quattroventi, 1993, pp. 15-33.

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