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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Opera Review: Never Listen to the Tenor

The Collegiate Chorale presents Moïse et Phaoron.
Moses supposes: James Morris utters prophecies in Moïse. 
To his right, Ginger Costa-Jackson as Marie. Photo by Erin Baiano, © 2011 The Collegiate Chorale.
James Bagwell led the Collegiate Chorale and an all-star cast of singers across the Red Sea last night. The ensemble kicked off its 2011 season at Carnegie Hall with the 1827 Rossini rarity Moïse et Phaoron. The concert performance featured bass-baritone James Morris as Moses, Rising sopranos Angela Meade and Marina Rebekah sang key supporting roles.

Rossini first wrote Mosé en Egitto for the Italian stage in 1817. Ten years later, the French version was reworked and revised for Parisian sensibilities. The result is unique Rossini: a four-act retelling of the Book of Exodus that inserts a conventional love story in between scenes of chained Israelites and Egyptians battling the ten plagues. At the climax, the Pharaoh charges into the waves of the Red Sea at his son's urging. The moral is: never listen to the tenor.

Marina Rebekah and Erik Cutler in Moïse.
Photo by Erin Baiano, © 2011 The Collegiate Chorale.
A crack cast was on hand to do justice to Rossini's work. Bass-baritone James Morris was imposing as Wotan, using his rich, still pliant baritone to lead his people out of bondage. Bass-barihunk Kyle Ketelsen was impressive as the Pharaoh, and more than a match for Mr. Morris until meeting his watery end.

This is French opera, which means you need two divas, not one for the principal female roles. Angela Meade was Sinaide, the Pharaoh's wife. This was another triumph for the fast-rising American singer, who displayed rich, potent tone in the slow section of her big Act III aria. She was a little more steely in the fast second section, a duet with tenor Erik Cutler, but one wished she had more music to sing.

In the larger soprano role of Anaïs, soprano Maria Rebekah was not to be outdone. Another fast-rising star (last heard as Donna Anna in the Met's middling new production of Don Giovanni, she made the most of the big Act IV aria "Quelle horrible destinée." She shared good onstage chemistry with tenor Erik Cutler despite the narrow concert setting and Mr. Cutler's constant fiddling with a creaky music stand.

As the Pharaoh's son Amenophis. Mr. Cutler met the most difficult casting requirement in this opera, an old-fashioned bel canto tenor who can sing with pliability, accuracy and still be heard over the orchestra. He did a splendid job, despite looking corralled in the close quarters of the concert seating.

The American Symphony Orchestra was on hand to play this score, which is one of Rossini's most innovative. It points the way forward to works like Verdi's Nabucco and Berlioz' Les Troyens, particulary with its use of woodwind textures, rhythms in the strings, accenting harp and heavy brass. This last was represented by the ophicleide, an archaic tuba that lends the music a different tonal quality than modern brass.

Mr. Bagwell commanded these forces in a vibrant, though cut reading of this fascinating score. He was helped by a superb performance from the Collegiate Chorale, who took on the roles of chained Hebrews or oppressive Egyptians as necessary. Though they played both sides of this Biblical drama, they did so with maximum commitment to the truth and power of this little-heard music.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.