By Philip Gossett

Rossini's azione tragico-sacra, "Mosé in Egitto", was first performed at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on March 5, 1818, with a cast featuring Isabella Colbran as Elcia, Andrea Nozzari as Osiride, and Michele Benedetti as Mosé, three of the greatest singers of Rossini's day. The sophisticated Neapolitan audience admired the opera in its original form except for the short final act, which represented the crossing of the Red Sea. Here the staging appears to have elicited howls of derision, and even Rossini's music could not rescue the fiasco. Almost exactly one year later, on March 7, 1819, Rossini brought the opera before the same public again, with two changes: he omitted Amaltea's aria in the second act and rewrote the third act. With its new conclusion, whose music featured the Preghiera, "Dal tuo stellato soglio", ultimately one of Rossini's most popular compositions, the work spread to opera-houses all over Europe. Although it is possible to speculate about the contents of the original third act on the basis of the printed libretto of 1818, no musical source is yet known.
In 1827 Rossini significantly revised the entire opera once again. As "Moïse et Pharaon ou Le passage de la Mer Rouge" (soon shortened simply to "Moïse"), it reached the stage of the Opéra in Paris on March 26, 1827 to great acclaim. This was no simple revision of convenience, motivated by a demanding prima donna or the whim of an impresario; it was a major rethinking of the composition. The resulting opera gradually supplanted the Italian original not only in France but also, retranslated into Italian, in other European centres and in Italy itself. Occasional performances of "Mosé in Egitto" can be documented during the 1830's; indeed, the Parisian Théâtre-Italien continued to perform it in competition with the French "Moïse" at the Opéra. From a series of performances at the Thétre-Italien in 1832 (imaginatively transported to Venice), Balzac derived material for his magnificent short story, "Masimilla Doni". But soon "Mosé in Egitto" was forgotten and "Moïse" alone continued to be performed. It is one of the few serious operas by Rossini never to disappear completely from the repertory.
Given this history, why should a major recording of "Mosé in Egitto" be proposed to a general audience today? Indeed, since most Rossini experts agree that the very best pages in "Mosé" are all preserved in "Moïse" essentially without change, why bother with "Mosé in Egitto" at all?
An answer to these questions must start with a simple truth: there are cases in the history of opera where works exist in multiple versions having equal claim on our attention. It is foolishness to consider one version "better" than the other, and greater foolishness to chase an elusive "ideal" by attempting to reconcile their individual qualities. On what basis should we choose between the Italian and French versions of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice"? Or between the two versions of Verdi's "Macbeth"? Or between Beethoven's "Fidelio" and its predecessor, "Leonore"? In each case the final versions have superb new music, to be sure, but important qualities of the earlier versions are lost in the revision. This is particularly true of "Mosé in Egitto".
In its original form, "Mosé in Egitto" is an opera in sacred garb, a way to circumvent official sanctions against performing secular works during Lent. The plight of Elcia, a Hebrew girl secretly betrothed to Osiris, the Egyptian prince, derived by Rossini's librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, from the play "L'Osiride" by Francesco Ringhieri (Padua, 1760), is frankly similar to other depictions of the conflict between love and duty pervading Italian melodramma of the time. Striking an appropriate balance between the biblical world of Moses and his people and this personal story of passion played out in its shadow becomes the central artistic problem for the composer and his librettist. It is a problem to which others, especially Scribe and Meyerbeer, were to return again and again during the nineteenth century. In "Mosé in Egitto" the biblical story frames the action, from the opening scene in which we find the Egyptians lamenting the plague of darkness that has fallen over their homeland to the final prayer and miracle of the third act, the crossing of the Red Sea. Though the love of Elcia and Osiris is introduced in the first act, with their touching duet, "Ah! se puoi così lasciarmi", only in the second act does it dominate the action. Osiris's desperate efforts to keep Elcia fail, and when in his fury he tries to kill Moses, a bolt of lightning strikes him dead, in fulfilment of Moses' threat that the first-born sons of Egypt will be slain. After this neat, though rather heartless, resolution of the personal story of Elcia and Osiris at the close of the second act, the final act concentrates again on the biblical tale, bringing it to its inevitable conclusion.
Though the two aspects of "Mosè in Egitto" are carefully and sensitively held in balance, there can be no doubt that it was the grandeur of the story of Moses and the Exodus that appealed most to Rossini. If we are to penetrate to the uniqueness of this work, we must look to the massive ensembles, choral movements, and declamatory solos. Similar passages occur elsewhere during the composer's Neapolitan period (1815-1822), to be sure, for the operas he prepared in Naples form as a group an extraordinary achievement, one that was to open the world of Italian opera to orchestral forces, powers of expression, choral participation, and structural possibilities unimagined there before. In "Mosé in Egitto", however, they are especially appropriate and are invariably associated with the biblical story: the presentation of the two peoples, Hebrew and Egyptian, the plagues, the miracles, the prayers, and the crossing of the Red Sea. These passages were almost all preserved by Rossini when he adopted "Mosé in Egitto" for Paris in 1827, while many more typically operatic sections were eliminated. The Introduzione, "Ah! Chi ne aita? Oh ciel?" – to take but one example – shows the Egyptians mired in darkness, with a sinuous orchestral figure in C minor and related keys underlying their anguish. (This remarkable opening is transferred to the beginning of Act II in "Moïse", losing thereby much of its force.) As God responds to Moses' invocation, which is accompanied by low brass, the obscurity changes to bright light and the C minor becomes a radiant major, a progression which recurs at the end of the opera to symbolise the drowning of the Egyptians and salvation of the Hebrew people. The hymn in pseudo-canon which follows ("Celeste man placata") with its accompaniment of violas, cellos, harp, horns, and low winds, bears witness to Rossini's exquisite handling of reduced orchestral forces.
The most famous number of the score, the Preghiera, is an extremely simple piece. Its beauty lies in a limpidly clear melody in G minor, accompanied by harp and winds alone. Each of three parallel strophes, sung in turn by Moses, Aaron, and Elcia, leads to a cadence in the relative major (B flat major); a choral response imploring pity returns the music to the tonic minor. Only after the third strophe does the chorus lead back not to G minor but to G major, and the transformation of the theme into major at the end, now with full orchestra and a banda sul palco (stage band) to support it, has a beauty and power far beyond what this technical description might lead us to expect.
The music Rossini provided for the lovers and their personal story, while accomplished and often exquisite, does not consistently rise to this level. The beauty of such pieces as the Elcia-Osiris duet in Act I or the duet between Osiris and his disapproving father in Act II, "Parlar, spiegar non posso", is more generic, not absolutely dependent on the precise dramatic situation. The cabaletta of Elcia's aria, "Tormenti, affanni, e smanie", her outburst after the death of Osiris, while forceful and convincing in its context, could also be transformed into the conclusion of Sinaïde's aria in "Moïse", "Qu'entends-je, o douce ivresse", with its diametrically opposite expression of joy. For several pieces in "Mosé in Egitto", Rossini resorted to borrowing from earlier operas. A cabaletta from the Ninetta-Giannetto duet in "La gazza ladra" provides the principal theme of the Osiris-Pharaoh duet. The chorus preceding Elcia's aria, "Se a mitigar tue cure", is taken with little change from "Adelaide di Borgogna" (Rome, 1817), while Amaltea's aria, "La pace mia smarrita", differs marginally from an aria in "Ciro in Babilonia" (Ferrara, 1812). Only in this latter case can one seriously question Rossini's judgement, for the stylistic gulf between "Ciro in Babilonia" and "Mosé in Egitto" cannot be bridged by this lovely but immature aria; Significantly, "La pace mia smarrita" was soon dropped from the score by Rossini himself, and contemporary revivals frequently cut or abbreviated it. Furthermore, as was often the case when Rossini worked quickly (his "Armida" had been first performed in Naples in November 1817 and "Adelaide di Borgogna" followed in Rome at the end of December), he used other musicians to assist with the composition of some recitatives and minor arias, in this case those for Pharaoh and Moses. The latter aria, "Tu di ceppi m'aggravi la mano" is a weak piece and mercifully short. On the other hand, "A rispettarmi apprenda", the aria supplied for Pharaoh by Rossini's friend Michele Carafa, is an excellent composition which continued to be performed even after Rossini supplied his own aria for Pharaoh, "Cade dal ciglio il velo". This aria was probably written at the urging of the young French composer, Ferdinand Hérold, when Hérold directed the first Parisian performance of "Mosé in Egitto", at the Théâtre-Italien in 1822.
It is striking that most of the problematical numbers in the opera are arias. Indeed, the only aria in "Mosé in Egitto" on which Rossini seems to have expended real effort was Elcia's at the close of Act II, a piece thoroughly integrated into the drama, particularly in its extraordinary middle section with the death of Osiris. Rossini's compositional interests were now firmly pointed towards the ensemble and choral numbers. In adapting "Mosé in Egitto" for the Opéra, Rossini indeed omitted all the arias except Elcia's, which he transferred to a different character. On one level, this does improve the opera. But the music he added and substituted brings with it other problems. Some is superb, a magnificent aria for Anaï (Elcia), a chorus for the Hebrews to open the new first act, etc. But the large number of choral movements, dances, and general divertissement which Rossini felt compelled to include as a concession to Parisian taste expand the opera beyond its natural limits. The balance between the personal and the public, so carefully controlled in the original, is lost, and the stylistic discrepancies introduced are no less noticeable than that between the original "Mosé in Egitto" and its aria borrowed from "Ciro in Babilonia".
If we cannot have one truth, let us be content with two. "Mosé in Egitto," in its own right, is a work of great value. At its best, it contains some of Rossini's finest music. Without knowledge of it, we cannot hope to understand Rossini's growth as a composer and musical dramatist in Naples. The clarity of its outlines and the strength of its construction appeal in a more direct and moving fashion than "Moïse". Further justification is hardly necessary: the opera will speak very well for itself.