“Thou knowest, O Lord, that I was born to write opera buffa”. Rossini’s words, not mine. So he’s only himself to blame if they kept coming unbidden to mind throughout Davd Pountney’s new WNO production of Moses in Egypt.
Essentially an operatic setting of the Book of Exodus plus added love interest, it’s crammed with striking moments – a short, atmospheric prelude, and a stirring choral prayer for Moses and his people that’s surely the blueprint for Verdi’s Va, pensiero.
But much of it is pure buffo Rossini; exuberant, inventive, and perfectly capable of following the words “My dearest love is dead” with a jaunty little twiddle for the woodwinds.
Still, there’s no doubting the commitment it received. Against designer Raimund Bauer’s huge red and blue slabs, Pountney seemed at first to be playing the piece almost as a staged cantata, with Hebrews and Egyptians presented as immovable blocs.
It became less static in Act 2, where Rossini begins to tighten his plot; and the parting of the Red Sea was simply but powerfully realised.
The casting was uniformly strong; Miklós Sebestyén a sonorous and imposing presence as Moses, and Andrew Foster-Williams a warm-toned and surprisingly human Pharaoh – his parental affection for his son Osiride (a fluid-voiced David Alegret) was touchingly believable.
As Amaltea, Christine Rice delivered her big Act 2 aria with concentrated emotion and radiant poise.
But the surprise of the night was Joanne Boag, replacing an indisposed Claire Booth with an impassioned, wonderfully expressive performance as Elcia.
The quiet control of her singing at the start of the Act 2 quartet was breathtaking. Carlo Rizzi conducted with exactly the verve and effortless sense of style we’ve come to expect; the orchestra’s woodwinds deserved solo bows in their own right.
And the WNO Chorus, in that noble Act 3 prayer, wrapped it all up with one of those blazing, spine-tingling emotional thrills that only they can deliver.