At a time when so much of our entertainment is recycled, reheated and "revived," we were more than interested in the Chicago Opera Theater's "Moses in Egypt."
It sounded like a terrifically lively show — parting of the Red Sea and all that — but we were surprised and intrigued and even befuddled to learn that the show was last performed in Chicago in 1863.
That is not a typographical error. That is 1863, as in a Chicago still eight years from the Great Fire; a city that housed thousands of Confederate prisoners of war in a camp at 31st St. and Cottage Grove Ave.; a place that received 1,617,267 hogs for their inevitable end but could not yet be called "Hot Butcher for the World" because Carl Sandburg was still 15 years from being born and 53 years away from writing his poem "Chicago."
What makes this interlude between shows even more curious is that it was a big hit the first time around. Since the Chicago Tribune has been published since 1847 (June 10 for those of you looking for a new holiday to celebrate), it was not difficult to find a review of that long ago production. The unsigned piece from the July 3, 1863, edition deemed the performance a "complete operatic triumph. Rich, sweet, celestial depths of harmony, delicious arias, artists singing con amore …"
"Moses in Egypt" is the work of Giacchino Rossini's, nicknamed "The Italian Mozart," and in his time (1792-1868) the most popular opera composer in the world, thanks largely to such famous and enduring works as "The Barber of Seville" and "William Tell."
So, what took so long?
"Serious opera went into a long, long decline, considered unfashionable," says the COT's general director, Brian Dickie. "That combined with the notion, false of course, that Rossini was trivial when compared to such composers as [ Giuseppe] Verdi, faded his reputation.
"As well, serious operas demanded singers up to the challenge but now a generation has emerged that is and we have been lucky enough to put together such a cast."
The opera was chosen by a nifty method called The People's Opera which allows people to vote from among three choices which they would most like to see on stage. "Moses in Egypt" was an overwhelming favorite. If you'd like to see it, you'd better get cracking: The last of its four performance run is today at 3 p.m.
The COT's seasons are short but spectacular. This spring also includes Francesco Cavalli's "Jason" and Jack Heggie's "Three Decembers," as well as a special May 10 concert, featuring Heggie on piano and the great American mezzo-soprano Frederica Von Stade. (Have a look and order tickets at chicagooperatheater.org, where you'll also be able to vote on next season's opera and read Dickie's sprightly blog).
"I do feel the sense of history with this production," says Dickie. "It really is astonishing that it has taken so long for this show to come back to Chicago. It is a delight to be revealing such glorious music that has been neglected for so long."