Moses In Egypt
Tuesday night’s performance by New York City Opera of Rossini’s "Moses In Egypt" offered up a great, great deal of what’s been the best and worst about the company, past and present.
I think the good far outweighed the bad, but let’s frankly note both, starting with a ledger of the positives.
At its founding in 1943, the company performed at City Center, not the giant, barn-like space of the David H. Koch Theater that it moved to in 1966. Now, under Artistic Director George Steel, it’s returning to City Center.
This proved very much a boon. For not only is City Center one of the loveliest theaters in New York, but it’s also much more intimate and a much easier spot for the performing singers to be heard.
What was more, all of them sounded good, and one, soprano Sian Davies, was simply exceptional.
This continues an established tradition of the company for introducing talented singers. (It was City opera, not the Met, after all, which played the crucial role in introducing Sills, Domingo, Verrett, and Carerras, among others.)
The production also continued the company’s record of selecting and showing off great but forgotten operas. "Moses in Egypt," which exists in several versions, including a four-act French account, arguably falls into this category. For while the music is almost entirely lightweight and the work can be construed as a sort of preparatory sketch for Verdi’s "Aida," it is sometimes touching, often beautiful and always exceptionally melodic and lively.
In this the company was aided by some judicious cutting of the score and the consistently fleet pace set forward by conductor Jayce Orgen who skillfully guided what appeared to be a virtual pick-up orchestra.
So what was wrong? We might start with Jessica Jahn’s costumes. As my companion noted, those given to the Egyptians were not merely hideous but ill-fitting. They looked like someone’s joking idea for the outfits to a video for a Whitesnake song filmed in Luxor.
Moreover, the blocking and the designs were no better -- possibly worse. In particular, for whatever reason director Michael Counts consistently guided the singers away from looking at one other or moving towards each other at moments of high drama.
It was opera direction from the days of Caruso and Pons.
Typically, the performers moved about the stage in elaborate orbits created by the actions of a revolve. The effect prompted a number of audience members to say at the intermission that it made them anxious for the relief of Dramamine tablets.
More distracting still were giant LED lightboards used to present absurd images of storybook desert dunes.
Of course, the company lacks for money. But couldn’t there be better costumes and direction if not actual sets?
Yet, all this said, we must forgive the company for its faults as it brought us so many fine new voices and a wonderful opera the Met has not staged in this critic’s memory. It even offers us all this for tickets starting at a very reasonable $25.
Moreover, the singing in the production became stronger as the show went on with Davies, playing the part of Elcia, a Hebrew slave in love with Pharaoh’s son Osiris (Randall Bills), giving one of the best New York debuts in years.
Among the many other singers who notably complemented her was an elegant Aldo Caputo in the part of Moses’ brother Aaron. Memorable in her big number after intermission, too, was mezzo-soprano Emily Righter as Amenofi.