- Azione tragico-sacra in 3 acts
- Composer: Gioachino Rossini
- Libretto: Andrea Leone Tottola, after Francesco Ringhieri’s play L’Osiride (1760)
- First performed: Teatro San Carlo, Naples, 5 March 1818
SETTING: Egypt, around 1230 B.C.
CHARACTERS: MOSÈ [Moses], leader of the Israelites (bass); ARONNE [Aaron], his brother (tenor); FARAONE [the Pharaoh] (baritone); OSIRIDE, his son (tenor); MAMBRE, an Egyptian officer or priest (tenor); ELCIA, a Jewish maiden (soprano); AMENOSI, Elcia’s mother (mezzo-soprano); AMALTEA, the Pharaoh’s wife (soprano).
ORIGINAL CAST: Michele Benedetti as Mosè; Isabella Colbran as Elcia; Andrea Nozzari as Osiride; Friderike Funk as Amaltea; Maria Manzi as Amenosi.
Mosè in Egitto is Rossini’s Biblical opera, an inspiration for Donizetti’s Diluvio universale and Verdi’s Nabucco among others. The work was commissioned for Naples during Lent, a time when secular subjects were banned from the stage – but the public still wanted their opera fix. Rossini’s librettist Tottola took the Exodus story of Moses leading his people out of slavery, the plagues of Egypt, and the parting of the Red Sea, and added the obligatory romantic complications: a love affair between a Jewish girl and an Egyptian prince.
The result is as much oratorio as opera. There are many beautiful ensembles – notably the quartet in Act I, the quintet in Act II, and the famous prayer in Act III – but the arias are among Rossini’s weaker efforts, many recycled from earlier works. Indeed, Philip Gossett suggests the composer only expended effort on Elcia’s aria at the end of Act II, the only aria kept for the 1827 Paris revision, Moïse et Pharaon.
Act I: There is no overture. Instead, the opera opens directly (as many of the Naples operas do) with the Scene of Shadows, one of the most impressive beginnings to any Rossini opera. Because Pharaoh refuses to let the Jews leave Egypt and go to Israel, Jehovah has plunged the land into darkness. The Introduzione (No. 1: ‘Ah! Chi ne aiuta? Oh ciel!’) is as much oratorio as opera – a mysterious awe-struck andante maestoso in C minor. Stendhal notes the visual effect was easy to achieve: simply lower the lights. For this reason, he laughed when the curtain lifted to reveal groups of poor Egyptians terrified of the darkness and praying. But he had not heard 20 measures of the admirable introduction before he saw a great people suffering. The entrance of Mosè, in a costume modelled on a Michelangelo statue at San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, reminded him of the most sublime passages of Haydn. The prophet convinces Pharaoh to let his people go. He prays (No. 3: Invocazione: ‘Eterno! Immenso!’), waves his wand, and light returns in C major. A magnificent quintet (No. 4: ‘Celeste man placata!’) follows; it opens with one of Rossini’s gently flowing andantes and ends as a brilliant allegro.
The Israelites prepare to leave; Elcia takes leave of her lover Osiride who, unwilling to let her go, plots with the priest Mamfre to discredit Mosè as a Hebrew sorcerer. Pharaoh changes his mind again; any Jew who tries to leave Egypt will die. Neither the duet (No. 6: ‘Ah! se puoi così lasciarmi’) nor Pharaoh’s aria (No. 8: ‘Cade dal ciglio il velo’) are up to the level of the Introduzione or quintet.
In retaliation, Mosè summons a storm of hail and fire, warning the Egyptians that thus God exterminates his enemies. The finale is weaker than I remembered; the allegro brillante chorus of Jews is vigorous but slightly vulgar; Elcia’s andantino aria (marked duet with her mother) rather slow; the largo concertato is not Rossini’s most inspired; and there are a few too many of those chirpy but trivial phrases. The stretta, though, has a certain ominous power, with a remorseless march of chords like battering rams.
Act II: And so Pharaoh changes his mind yet again. Now the Jews must leave Egypt within a day, on pain of death. This sits poorly with his son Osiride, whom he has ordered to marry an Armenian princess. their duet (No. 13: ‘Parlar, spiegar non posso’) – based on a cabaletta from La gazza ladra – was apparently written on autopilot, but has some graceful virtuoso passages for the tenor. Amaltea’s ornate concert aria (No. 15: ‘La pace mia smarrita’) is recycled from Ciro in Babilonia: attractive but undramatic. Rossini cut it in the 1819 version.
The scene changes to a dark cavern. Osiride has taken Elcia by force to stop her leaving; he plans to abandon the throne and live a life of pastoral simplicity with her. His mother and her father rescue her from this romantic rustication. The quartet (No. 17) is excellent; the singers take their positions in the allegro (‘Involto in fiamma rea’); the andante (‘Mi manca la voce’) is serenely beautiful, the singers accompanied by harps. The ensemble ends with a terrific vivace sretta (‘Fiera guerra mi sento nel seno’).
Pharaoh reneges once more, and Mosè is arrested when he warns that thunderbolts will strike down the prince and all first-born children. The aria (No. 19: ‘Tu di ceppi m’aggravi’) has a robust andante mosso opening section; I’m less keen on the allegro finish. Gossett thinks it “a weak piece, and mercifully short”. Pharaoh announces his son will join him on the throne; the Egyptians hail the prince in an allegro maestoso chorus (No. 21: ‘Se a mitigar tue cure’) lifted from Adelaide di Borgogna. The act’s finale is really the prima donna’s showpiece aria, normally reserved for the end of the opera. Elcia begs Osiride to let the people of Israel go into the desert, but he is adamant. The prince threatens Mosè, and is promptly felled by lightning. Her lamenting cabaletta (‘Tormenti, affani e smanie’) closes the act.
The first two acts were a great success – but Act III was a problem. The short act depicts the crossing of the Red Sea. The waters part before the Hebrews, allowing them to escape; Pharaoh and the pursuing Egyptian army are drowned.
The original staging was, Stendhal remembered, ridiculous. The parterre saw the ‘sea’ raised 5 or 6 feet above the ‘shores’; the people in the boxes, who had a bird’s-eye view of the stage, also clearly saw the youths (lazzaroni) who divided the waters. The theatre erupted in laughter, and hardly anybody heard the end of the opera.
A year later, Rossini and his librettist Tottola rewrote the act entirely. In the version that comes down to us, there is only one number: Mosè’s magnificent prayer (No. 25: ‘Dal tuo stellato soglio’) – written, Stendhal claims, in 8 or 10 minutes at the most. Composed for the 1819 revision, it opens with Mosè’s hushed, reverent prayer in the minor, accompanied by harp and wind; repeated by the other soloists and chorus, it swells into a sublime ensemble in the major.
The parterre was starting to laugh, Stendhal wrote, when Mosè’s prayer began. Surprised by the novelty, they listened, and all laughter stopped at once. “One cannot imagine the thunderbolt that sounded throughout the theatre; one would have thought it was crumbling. The spectators in the boxes, standing and leaning out to applaud, cried loudly: ‘Bello! Bello! O che bello!’ I have never seen such fury, nor such a success, all the more so as they quite prepared to laugh and mock… After that, deny that music has a direct physical effect upon the nerves! I am almost in tears when I think of this prayer.” Speaking of physical effects, one Dr. Cottougna of Naples cited “more than 40 attacks of nervous fever, or violent convulsions on the part of young women fond to excess of music”, caused by this piece.
Mosè in Egitto was soon performed throughout Europe. “Tender in Tancredi, passionate in Otello, Rossini is magnificent and religious in Mosè, and often unites the grace of Raphael with the vigour of Michelangelo,” A.P. wrote (Le Spectateur, 1826). The Germans thought it Rossini’s masterpiece, Stendhal noted, because he spoke their language: he was learned, and sacrificed to the god of harmony. To Stendhal, though, that god of harmony was a sort of golden calf, a violation of the almost Mosaic purity of voice and melody. Stendhal admired the opera, but found it boring and undramatic. Many critics prefer the Paris revision, Moïse et Pharaon (1827), itself translated back into Italian as Mosè.
Ruggero Raimondi (Mosè), Siegmund Nimsgern (Faraone), and June Anderson (Elcia), with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Claudio Scimone. Decca 1982.
- Henri Blaze de Bury, “Compositeurs contemporains – Rossini, sa Vie et ses Œuvres – II. – Séconde période italienne, d’Otello à Semiramide”, Revue des Deux Mondes, 1854
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, 1869
- Philip Gossett, “‘MOSÈ’ or ‘MOÏSE’? An Original Masterpiece Restored”, article accompanying 1982 Decca recording, cond. C. Scimone
- Charles Osborne, The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1994.
- Richard Osborne, The Master Musicians: Rossini. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London & Melbourne, 1986.
- A.P., Lettres sur la musique dramatique: No. 5 Mosè in Egitto : Début de Rubini dans le rôle d’Osiride, Le Spectateur, 21 February 1826
- Stendhal, Vie de Rossini, 1824
See also Phil’s Opera World.