OPERA / The plague of darkness: Edward Seckerson reviews Mose in Egitto at the Royal Opera House and English National Opera's Peter Grimes

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The Independent Culture
The operatic week promised to be big on crowd scenes. The Borough was again boiling over in Britten's Peter Grimes at English National Opera, while Rossini's Mose in Egitto bowed in belatedly at the Royal Opera House.

It's a long road from Suffolk to ancient Egypt. But not half as long - or so it seemed - as from the plague of darkness to the parting of the Red Sea. What with this and Fedora offered up as part of the Midland Bank's dual Covent Garden Proms, first-time opera-goers will have all their worst fears confirmed: the taxidermic school of opera production really is alive and well.

Could it be that the director / designer Hugo De Ana was attempting some kind of period reconstruction here: a sort of 19th Century Fox production, busy with nubile slave girls and all manner of balletic twinkle- toeing? The opening tableau looked vaguely promising: shadowy figures, a mass of shaved heads, Egyptians and Israelites at first indistinguishable from one another - equal under God? But that's as interesting as it gets. Everybody uses their hands a great deal, tracing expressive shapes in the air. You know the kind of thing. It's about as theatrical as the polystyrene rock-faces that shroud it. And terminally fay.

You might say the same of Rossini's score. It has its moments - usually those becalmed passages where one solo voice after another lends expression to the same tune while droplets of pizzicato strings gently fall. Or the poetic obbligato horn or flute or clarinet prefacing the arias. There are precious few of those: it's very much an opera of ensembles and, as such, needs a much tighter rein from the pit than it got here from the conductor Paolo Olmi. The dropped stitches were too many, the fibre of narrative drive relegated to the rum-ti-tum of perfunctory accompaniment. But vocal style rules, and in one promising newcomer and one seasoned stylist there was something to raise a quiet cheer about.

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elcia) is a young singer of enormous promise - a lyrico spinto soprano in embryo. Her body language is eloquent and the voice really touches something: there's an engaging huskiness in the colour (that will invite unhelpful Callas comparisons), warmth and plangency in the tone. And she can really move it on the breath through those florid Rossinian descents. But it's a voice that needs to grow in smaller houses than Covent Garden. And she could learn a thing or two about style and the intensity of the 'inner voice' from Ann Murray (Amaltea), whose big aria was easily the highlight of the evening. As Pharaoh's son, Osiride, the American Bruce Ford feathers some lovely mezza voce singing, but the heavyweight bass protagonists, Simone Alaimo (Pharaoh) and Ruggero Raimondi (Mose) are both stronger on proclamation than they are on persuasion. Alaimo's coloratura was invariably lagging behind the conductor; Raimondi's famous prayer was pitched flat, which didn't bode well for the crossing of the Red Sea.

Disillusioned prommers would do well to hotfoot it over to the Coliseum, where Philip Langridge is giving the performance of his life as the misfit fisherman Grimes whose terrible frustration finds outlet in child abuse. You'll hear an opera chorus at the peak of its very considerable form, and a conductor, David Atherton, taking this incredible score to the brink, and back again.

Tim Albery's production contains the most stunningly original moment I have seen in any production of the opera. At the close of Act 2, the sight of Grimes slowly traversing the stage with the lifeless body of his new apprentice draped across his shoulders will stir feelings we'd all rather leave dormant.

'Mose in Egitto', at the Royal Opera House: 071-240 1911; 'Peter Grimes', at the Coliseum: 071-836 3161