2009 Salzburg Festival: Moïse et Pharaon

KUHF CEO and General Manager John Proffitt will host a 60th anniversary tour to Austria next summer, which will include four days at the Salzburg Festival.  Dean Dalton visited the Festival this summer to make plans and saw five performances in a span of four days. Today, Dean provides commentary on the production of Rossini's Moïse et Pharaon he attended.
It is hardly news that Jürgen Flimm, in his production of Rossini's rarely-performed Moïse et Pharaon for the Salzburg Festival, would choose to make a contemporary political point. But many may be surprised to learn that Rossini's originals (he made two versions of the Exodus story, one for Naples, another for Paris) had their political points axes to grind as well. In fact, the differences between Rossini's two versions owe more to the political climates of the two cities than to their musical tastes. 

Conductor Riccardo MutiThe first, for Naples, focuses more on the Egyptians, suffering under a weak and vacillating ruler (compare the Pharaoh to Ferdinand IV, King of the Two Sicilies) than on the captive Israelites.  The great choruses of slaves, crying out for freedom, so suggestive of Verdi-to-come, show up later.  The focus on the dangers of a political system that is controlled by a religious establishment is most pronounced in the version for Paris, where that was a hot issue in the mid-1820s.

So, there was plenty of grist for the political mill of Mr. Flimm and colleagues and they certainly made their points.  The Hebrews look very much like refugees from post-World War II Europe, making their way to Israel with their one shabby suitcase, while the Egyptian people have a non-specific but definitely Middle-Eastern look.  And the production makes it clear that both suffer because of the conflict.  In one memorable scene, both peoples are crushed beneath huge stone tablets, inscribed on one side with Egyptian characters, on the other in Hebrew.  And, in the end, it is the people themselves, not Moses, not God, who push back the walls that hold them captive.

But it was the conductor, Riccardo Muti, who lobbied for the opportunity to do the Paris version, Moïse et Pharaon, at the Festival; one assumes largely on musical grounds.  And there is glorious music here.  Of course, the great choruses spring immediately to mind: an invented love story notwithstanding, this is an opera more about the masses on both sides of the political divide than about individuals.  Even Pharaoh and Moses are minor by comparison; God's spokesman virtually never sings except with the chorus—he is of importance only as the leader of the Hebrews.  There is little of the Rossini we expect here: the florid coloratura arias and duets are kept to a minimum.  But oh the orchestral finale! Those 31 bars of utter calm and peace that follow the horrifying destruction of the Egyptian army, alone were worth the entire three hours of my time (and the $145 of my treasure required to purchase a seat five rows from the back of the balcony).

The disappointments came, as they so often do, when the so-called "creative team" lost sight of the music in pursuing their visual agenda  (when did the musicians—or the composer, for heaven's sake, cease being creative?).

Moise et Pharaon by RossiniFor instance: I feel confident that it was Muti who insisted on keeping the ballet music, which is about 25 minutes of rump-ti-tump, jolly Rossini; music intended to accompany a pageant in honor of Isis—nothing to compare in depth or substance with the music for the rest of the opera.  What did the design team come up with?  Well, they brought down a black curtain on which they projected Biblical passages describing the horrors of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, periodically hauling up the curtain to show a tableau vivant on stage of the slaughter of the first-borns or some such.  The visual elements were totally at odds with the music.  And, at the end, over the sublimely peaceful orchestra postlude, what did they give us in place of Rossini's rainbow but even more apocalyptic texts, this time from the book of Revelation.

Yes, yes, there's the concept of "working against" the music.  In this case, the banality of the ballet music supposedly makes the horror of the visual images more striking while the apocalyptic texts suggest that the sense of peace evoked by the music at the end is but an illusion.  However, in practice, such theories rarely work.  The music, in reaching levels of understanding inaccessible to word or image, almost always trumps the efforts of even the best design team to contradict its message.

As for the music: it goes without saying that element was close to flawless.  Given a cast of first-rate if not star-quality soloists, supported by the Vienna State Opera chorus on stage and the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, all under the masterful hand of Riccardo Muti, how could it go wrong?

KUHF CEO and General Manager John Proffitt will host a 60th anniversary tour to Austria next summer, which will include four days at the Salzburg Festival.  Dean Dalton will be along as well, to manage the 10-day tour to Vienna, Linz, and Salzburg.  Watch for details in November.
Bio photo of Dean Dalton

Dean Dalton

Host, Houston Symphony Broadcasts

Dean Dalton grew up in a musical family in a smallish town in Missouri. Having sung in church and school choirs from early on, he began to study piano at 8, and took up the viola at 11...