OPERA / Covent Garden's 'Moses': lost in the wilderness: Moses in Egypt - ROH; Peter Grimes - ENO

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Rossini's biblical epic Moses in Egypt played at Naples in 1819, a local doctor reportedly attended 40 cases of nervous paroxysm among members of the audience. Medical statistics for the new production here at Covent Garden haven't been produced yet, though I don't imagine hospitals have had to cancel leave: the parting of the Red Sea isn't that exciting, and the going rate for Nubian slaves has obviously gone up since Cecil B de Mille's day. I counted four.

But then, Covent Garden hasn't opted for the biggest version of the piece; and the version it has chosen is an interesting indicator of changing attitudes to the solemn stage-works of a composer better known for his comedies. Moses exists in basically two forms: Mose in Egitto, written for Naples in 1818-19, and Moise et Pharaon for Paris in 1827. Both purport to be religious drama; both in fact use the Old Testament as background colour to a love story about as biblical as Aida (son of pharaoh loves niece of Moses: it can only end in tears). But the Paris version is grander, with more emphasis on the chorus, less on the lovers, and an extra act which gives Moses the chance to summon down several more plagues.

London audiences had the benefit of all this in 1986 when ENO staged the Paris version; and at the time there was a broad consensus that it was the richer, more developed and harmonically inventive score. But in truth, the Paris version bloats out the conciseness and directness of the original, which joins the story at the plague of darkness and opens with as striking a piece of theatre as you find in bel canto opera: a transformation from darkness to light (and C Major to C Minor) as Moses brings the sun back.

That opening scene alone is a persuasive argument for Naples; and it's one of the more impressive things about the Covent Garden staging, which may be short on slaves but offers massive rock-face sets strewn with colossi, crisply lit to look like 19th-century book-plates of the ancient past. The lament of the Egyptians in their darkness is distinguished by the solid vocal strength of Simone Alaimo's Pharaoh. And for the moment it all seems promising.

The promise fades before the interval as you realise that Alaimo isn't going to keep it up, that the pace of Hugo de Ana's direction is slow, that the movement owes a debt to Thunderbirds, and that the finesse of Ruggero Raimondi's Moses (a role he has long commanded and sings on the Philips recording) can't disguise its dry fragility, missing the resonant profundo bloom Moses demands.

There are compensations. The young American Rossini tenor, Bruce Ford, has superb precision and control across the broad-range role of Pharaoh's son; Anna Caterina Antonacci has a warm, dark-textured fluency as his lover; and though Ann Murray's vocal extremities are raw as Pharaoh's wife, they are exciting. But you couldn't say that of much else here. The conductor, Paulo Olmi, knows what he's about but doesn't get a quality sound from the orchestra. And for all the pleasure of sighting a rare and sometimes rewarding piece - home of the celebrated anthem-aria 'Dal tuo stellato soglio' and full of curious touches, from the Mozartian-masonic solemnity of that opening scene to the voiceless orchestral coda at the end - it hasn't sent me near a doctor.

The Brighton Festival had an epic of its own last weekend when Mark Elder conducted the visiting Orchestre de Lille in Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette - done, as it hardly ever is, according to the composer's instructions. Romeo et Juliette was a work-in-progress on Berlioz's desk for two decades, starting in 1827 when Paris witnessed not only the Mark II Moses but Kemble's Shakespeare company on tour. Harriet Smithson was playing Juliet; Berlioz fell in love with her; and 20 tortured years on came this score, which follows the precedent of Beethoven's 9th in grafting an oratorio on to a symphony. It is written in three 'scenes', the first and last of which are choral, leaving the heart of piece to the orchestra. And although these scenes follow Shakespeare (as adapted) they don't set a text that English schoolboys would recognise. Nor is the method operatic: more a commentary in which Romeo and Juliet make no appearance but have their story told for them by the orchestra, framed with a choral precis to start and an extended double chorus of Montagues and Capulets to finish.

As if this didn't leave the score sufficiently hybrid, Berlioz implied some element of theatre in that he provided specific instructions for the platform arrangement and wanted his Montagues and Capulets to file on in front of the orchestra, taking their beat from a second conductor (they'd have their backs to the first one) somewhere in the auditorium. You can imagine the problems and, perhaps, why it isn't done. Many performances of Romeo et Juliette omit the chorus altogether.

So two cheers for Mark Elder, the Brighton Festival Chorus and Laszlo Heltay, who mirrored Elder's beat (no easy matter) from the balcony of the Dome Theatre. Together they encompassed the refinement, grandeur and banality of the score in a way that managed to focus on its strengths (melodic grace, ingenious effects) and not its weaknesses (thin emotions, formlessness, length). The Orchestre de Lille is nothing special, and it struggled with the dry acoustics; but at least the woodwind sounded French. The strings sounded asleep.

Finally, a love letter to ENO whose revival of Peter Grimes is like a skewering of the soul: three hours of masochistic bliss, magnificently done. I'm still unsure about the degree of abstraction in Tim Albery's staging, which abandons the sense of place traditionally important to the piece. But if the time has come for Grimes to leave its nest of local colour, then I'm sure that this is how: with an unleashed energy that sweeps aside minutiae and reservations. Philip Langridge is, again, the compleat post-Pearsian Grimes. New to the cast, Alan Opie, Janice Cairns and Robert Poulton are their roles to the life. And despite some balance problems, the liquidity, brilliance and dynamism of the orchestral sound under David Atherton is stunning. Go.

'Moses': ROH, 071-240 1066, Tues & Fri. 'Grimes': ENO, 071-836 3161, Thurs & Sat.