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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Opera Review: Hi-Def on the Nile

City Opera comes home with Mosé in Egitto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
As Moses, baritone David Salsbery Fry (center) prepares to part the Red Sea.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2013 New York City Opera.
The New York City Opera launched the second half of its 2012 season this week with a new production of Rossini’s Mosé in Egitto, ("Moses in Egypt") the first of two productions at City Center this month. The show marks the company’s return to that ornate W. 55th St. theater after four decades. It is also the famously low-tech City Opera's first embrace of digital scenery, the en vogue  alternative to props, backdrops and flats.

Leading the company into this electronic promised land is director Michael Counts. His singers are restricted to shuffling movements, unnatural hand postures and an acting style that consists of staring fixedly at the audience, even when two characters are engaged in important dialogue. This style, borrowed mostly from the stage productions of Robert Wilson, lacked the Texan director’s imagination and poetry of movement.

The company overcame these limitations with a strong, enthusiastic cast, led by newly minted music director Jayce Ogren. David Salsbery Fry is a substitute Moses, (for an indisposed David Cushing.) Though Mr. Fry does not possess a large instrument, he brought out the inner humanity in the prophet with a sweet, plangent bass-baritone that could dip low for important notes as needed. He was absolutely authoritative in the brief final act, when leading the famous Prayer Chorus and parting the Red Sea.

His opposite number was another bass-baritone: Wayne Tigges as the Pharoah, whose reluctance to let the Israelites leave Egypt (here, it turns out, for political reasons) is the driving force behind the opera's events. Mr. Tigges gave an imposing performance, particularly in his duets with Osiride (Randal Bills), his rebellious son. However their big confrontation duet in the second act was undermined since both characters faced the audience in an attempted "split screen" effect that failed to convince.

Rossini wrote Mosé en Egitto for the Lenten season in 1818. Because this is bel canto opera in addition to being a Bible story, the show includes a romantic sub-plot between  Osiride (Mr. Bills) and Elcia, (Siân Davies) the nice Jewish girl who is about to leave Egypt. In their Act II duet, the digital backdrops and clever use of a turntable on the stage gave the impression that the lovers were going into lonely exile in a desert cave. The fact that the lovers were allowed to face each other helped.

Mr. Bills might be the discovery of this production, a genuine bel canto tenor with a fearless, acrobatic voice that swells in volume and power as it enters its upper register. He was well-matched by Ms. Davies in their duet. She has a beautiful instrument, supple and flexible in Rossini's treacherous ornamentation. But the best aria of the night belonged to Keri Alkema as the Queen of Egypt, all the more impressive because it was delivered while the soprano stood on top of a pillar like an ancient Egyptian statue.

Mosé has an unusual structure, with the third act taking just 15 minutes to perform. Here, the digital walls of water parted, with the giant backdrop screen splitting to allow the Israelites to escape through an upstage door. When the Egyptians followed, the digital water-walls slammed together, and footage of the Red Sea with little floating Egyptian bodies in it was shown as the orchestra played. It's not quite the ending of Götterdämmerung but it was an effective theatrical coup, and a sign that good things are in store for the long-wandering City Opera as it returns to its original home.

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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.