Premiere of “Moses” in LA

By Scott MacClelland

HENRY MOLLICONE’S opera Moses got a triumphant debut in its premiere production by the Los Angeles Opera at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on the weekend. Triumphant, but qualified. Mollicone’s music left a most vivid impression of the opening Friday night performance, which was staged within the cavernous, three-thousand-seat cathedral, notwithstanding the costumes and theatrical stage direction.

The commission was the latest in a series over the last six years of LA Opera productions at the cathedral, a gift to the community—free tickets—dreamed up by music director James Conlon when he came on board as music director. It draws on so many community resources that one whole page of the program handout listed the fifteen participating ensembles and choirs, from ten professional members of the opera orchestra to dozens of student players and scores of choristers from cities and schools throughout the LA Basin, giving name credit to each of the hundreds of performers. Almost lost in Conlon’s prefacing acknowledgments of the participating entities and sponsors were the names of composer Mollicone and librettist Shishir Kurup. Indeed, the commission served to introduce the two men for the first time. In a sense, it felt like the 65-minute opera was the product of a committee that owed its allegiance to an even bigger committee. And, in that sense, it came off surprisingly well.

The cathedral is a strangely ominous place. Its high-ceilinged entry of dark, undecorated concrete walls is severe and rigid, suitable for an Inquisition. The church itself is equally impressive with outsized symbols of the cross and monochrome ‘stained’ glass windows, the walls hung with tapestries, each depicting the saints in groups. Mollicone’s music and the opera’s production softened the prevailing austerity.

The evening got underway about 15 minutes after the announced start time of 7:30pm. After Conlon’s long list of required acknowledgments, he explained that the template for this new opera was Benjamin Britten Noye’s Fludde (1958), a work designed for amateurs, especially children, based on the 15th century Chester “mystery” play with which Conlon had launched his collaboration with the LA Cathedral.  He then proceeded to rehearse the full-house audience in the three familiar hymns that Mollicone incorporated into the narrative, explaining that the house lights would come up for each making them easy to read from score contained in the handout, and further advised that the second of them, near the end of the piece, would be announced by a flamboyant blast from the organ pipes mounted high on the front wall, stage left.

The events of Moses’ life were told at a brisk pace—Mollicone and Kurup well understood that the complete work should last just one hour—with supertitles projected high on the front wall, starting with Jocabed placing her newborn son in a basket released to the waters of the Nile to save him from the Pharaoh’s order to put to death all sons of the Israelite slaves. Bithia, the Egyptian princess, finds the basket and takes the boy as her son, naming him Moses. He grows up as brother to the crown prince Ramses, the weaker of the two, until Moses receives instructions from God (whose voice was sung simultaneously by a soprano and baritone) to demand freedom for the Israelite slaves. Everyone knows the Biblical story of Exodus and where that led the Israelites. But a highlight of the piece, and an opportunity that fell exclusively to Mollicone, was the depiction of the ten plagues, called by name only as a supertitle. The one that got the most audience laughter was Frogs, with all the young children scampering about in frog costumes.

The action was centered on the main staging area at the front of the church, but one of the aisles was used to depict Moses’ consultations with God on Mount Sinai and during the plague episodes. The singers in the principal roles were all newcomers to LA Opera—as indeed were Mollicone and Kurup—but obviously well trained and experienced. Moses was stentorian baritone Michael J Hawk, Ramses was tenor Alok Kumar, Bithia was mezzo Niru Liu, Zipporah (who becomes Moses’ wife) was soprano Sarah Vautour. The stage director, who has done all of the LA Opera productions at the cathedral, was Eli Villanueva. Three dance scenes, like the plagues, gave Mollicone a free hand.

Undoubtedly, most of the audience would not have been aware that Moses was structurally based on Noye’s Fludde, which provided the new work with a frame of reference. But, thanks in no small way to its packed narrative and propulsive pace, the audience responded with sustained applause.

Anyone familiar with Mollicone’s music would certainly recognize the composer’s trademark style, tonal textures with piquant spices, colors and discrete dissonances, not unlike Britten himself. If anything, Mollicone’s mastery has never seemed so assured, especially when one considers his recent comment, “It was the fastest work I’ve ever written.” 

Photos by Taso Papadakis