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Heartbreak fridge

Before there was Verdi’s Otello, Rossini’s Otello was considered the master operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. It’s easy to see why Rossini’s Otello was acclaimed at its time, and also why Verdi’s Otello eventually eclipsed the Rossini version.  The main deficiency in Rossini’s version is that the libretto is so much weaker than Boito’s libretto for Verdi’s opera. Boito masterfully condensed Shakespeare’s play into an inexorable, terrifying tragedy. Rossini’s libretto (by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa) excises a lot of Shakespeare’s dramatic devices and then adds unnecessary filler.

In the Shakespeare play Desdemona’s father disapproves of his daughter’s marriage. In the opera, Desdemona’s father (named Elmiro for unknown reasons) is almost the main catalyst of the action. Iago is reduced to a sniveling background schemer. Otello and Desdemona are never married in this version, they are merely secretly “promised” to one another.

Elmiro gives his daughter’s hand to Rodrigo, and Iago convinces Otello that a letter Desdemona wrote to Otello was instead intended for Rodrigo. Desdemona’s handkerchief and Cassio (major plot points in Shakespeare) are nixed. Otello stabs Desdemona to death in a jealous rage (instead of smothering her) and when he’s discovered he stabs himself to death. Curtain.

All of these changes weaken the dramatic plausibility of the plot. Otello and Desdemona are never given a tender moment together to show the audience that their love is genuine. Otello’s not a sympathetic character at all—he’s jealous and paranoid from the start, and there’s not that complexity that makes him a tragic hero in both the Shakespeare and Verdi versions.

Iago’s jealousy about both Cassio and Otello are erased, and his malignity becomes even more motiveless. Lost somewhere in the libretto is a line that says that Iago harbors feelings for Desdemona, but it’s still a weak-sauce, neutered version of one of literature’s most terrifying villains. Emilia in Rossini’s opera is simply Desdemona’s maid. There’s no mention of her being Iago’s wife. Another major dramatic arc is thus diminished. I could go on.

Rossini’s version has never completely fallen off the repertory map though—there is a fine recordins with Jose Carreras/Frederica von Stade and, on the Opera Rara label, another with Bruce Ford and Elizabeth Futral. This video taped from the Zurich Opera should further satisfy those who consider Rossini’s Otello one of his finest creations.

Rossini’s music is some of the greatest he ever wrote. This is one of his “three tenors” operas and he masterfully characterizes each major tenor—he gives Otello declamatory, heroic music, Rodrigo a more lyrical style, and Iago an extremely high-lying, almost whiny vocal line that loops back to the baroque castrati villains. Desdemona’s famous Act three scena has always been popular with Rossini mezzos and sopranos in concerts. The act three duet between Otello and Desdemona is as frightening in its intensity as Verdi’s version.

This video is exhibit A of how we really are living in a Golden Age for Rossini singing. All three tenors are excellent. John Osborn (Otello) has a darker, more heroic timbre but he can negotiate Rossini’s tricky vocal lines without any problems. If anyone can sing William Tell, it’s him.

Rodrigo (Javier Camarena) shows all the attributes that made him a sensation in New York this season—the sweet timbre, the secure, ringing upper register, and the ingratiating stage presence that makes Rodrigo a genuine romantic rival and not just an annoying gadfly.

Iago is the weakest of the three tenor roles. He’s given no solos, only duets, and his presence in the plot is mainly to stoke Otello’s already burgeoning jealousy. But Edgardo Rocha makes the most of the part, stealing scenes with mustache-twirling villainy. Only Peter Kalman (Elmiro) displays an occasional discomfort with the music and a somewhat worn voice.

Cecilia Bartoli, the de facto queen bee of Zurich, is a mixed bag as Desdemona. Bartoli has branched out to much more diverse repertoire, but she’s never abandoned Rossini, and Rossini hasn’t abandoned her either. Her voice remains almost ideal for Rossini’s operas—her timbre warm and dusky, her machine gun coloratura remarkable for its ability to squeeze about 60 billion notes into a 30 second timespan.

She has a freak upper extension that allows her to end ensembles with blazing soprano-like high notes. She ends the Act Two ensemble with a huge, long-held B. But this extremely long role also shows some of her irritating vocal mannerisms. For instance, in the recitatives, she often resorts to a breathy delivery as well as overly emphatic diction that sounds as if she’s both spitting out words like sunflower seeds and inhaling a helium balloon at the same time.

I call this an affectation because she is completely capable of singing a clean, unfussy vocal line, as she does during “Assisa a pie d’un salice” and “Deh calma, o ciel bel sonno.”

The production by Patrice Caurier and Moishe Leiser is extremely strong. Everyone is well-directed—there’s not a single moment where you think, “Well that didn’t work.” It’s a modern dress production that follows the libretto but has a distinctly feminist bent. Desdemona is at first seen as a powerful, confident woman. She’s wearing a rather severe black dress and black pumps. But she lives in a rigid, male-dominated world. Even Emilia (Liliana Nikiteanu) is a rather masculine and not particularly nurturing figure.

As the men dominate and control her, she defies them (in Act Two, she stands on top of a pool table and drinks beer to rebel against her father), but eventually she’s worn down. In Act Three she has a scar running down the back of her neck, indicating a suicide attempt, and the words “Nessun maggior dolore che ricordasi del tempo felice nella miseria” are written in blood in the back wall of Desdemona’s bedroom.

The final confrontation between Otello and Desdemona is hair-raising in its intensity. The duet becomes more and more heated, until it results in a passionate kiss. When Otello proceeds to stick the knife in her, the moment is shocking and appalling.

This production has already traveled to Salzburg and Paris and hopefully will travel to a few more cities, as it’s a well-directed, well-thought out production and it makes a good case for Rossini’s opera to return to the repertoire on a regular basis.

Mihai Lang and the Orchestra La Scintilla are excellent. They never let the momentum lag in Rossini’s opera.

The video includes the curtain calls which are quite the Cecilia Bartoli Show. She comes out to her adoring crowd, and seems overwhelmed by the applause. You see her eyes glisten. She’s pelted with bouquets. The other members pick up the bouquets for her, and then she, Prima Donna Extraordinaire, slowly distributes the flowers among the cast. She lets petals fall to the ground. The stage is covered with petals and cast members holding a single flower, but Bartoli continues to distribute the flowers as the credits roll.

She is the Queen, and this is her kingdom.

48 comments

  • manou says:

    Edgardo Rocha, the de facto queen bee of Zurich…..”? No.

  • semira mide says:

    This is an exciting production. However I’m not sure it qualifies as exciting Rossini. The Opera Rara recording with Bruce Ford comes much closer. Rossini never had a chance in crafting a Shakespearean drama. At the premier a last minute happy ending was required and adopted ( without Rossini’s consent) People who love this opera for the most part don’t really care about the “plot” -- there is plenty of drama in the music.

    Otello’s performance history has more twists and turns than the opera itself. It had a big success in NYC way back when( due to the singers) , and the title role was coveted by no less than Pasta and Malibran!

    Then there is this:

    • Poison Ivy says:

      Yeah but the Opera Rara recording has William Matteuzzi …

      • Poison Ivy says:

        Also Elizabeth Futral … Talk about a career that didn’t take off like it was supposed to. I remember the buzz that surrounded her Lakme at the NYCO. She had it all: beauty, voice, and a conductor husband. But her voice started to sound shrill and shredded very quickly. I see that she sings occasionally but for awhile she was really going to the Next Big Thing.

        • Krunoslav says:

          Agreed that it didn’t pan out as expected for Futral, but she sings more than “occasionally”- outside NYC, that is. :)

          Next month she creates “27′ alongside Stephanie Blythe at the OTSL,

          Mar 14 A Little Night Music Desiree Armfeldt en Houston(HGO) C: Melear; P: Mizrahi / M Ozawa
          Jan-Feb 14 Lucia di Lammermoor Lucia it Portland OR C: Manahan; P: James Robinson / Scholz-Carlson
          Nov 13 Arabella Zdenka de Minneapolis C: Michael Christie; P: Albery
          Sep-Oct 13 Dolores Claiborne Vera Donovan en San Francisco(SFO) C: Manahan; P: James Robinson
          Jan-Mar 13 La boheme Musetta Chicago(Opera) C: Villaume; P: Louisa Muller
          Jul 12 Emilie Émilie du Châtelet fr New York(Festival) C: John Kennedy; P: Weems
          Jul-Aug 12 Music Man Marian Paroo Glimmerglass C: J DeMain; P: M Dodge
          Feb-Mar 12 Cosi fan tutte Fiordiligi it Washington(WO) C: Auguin; P: Jonathan Miller

        • semira mide says:

          I’m not sure what Elizabeth Futral’s subsequent career has to do with her performance on this recording. Of course she’s not Bartoli, but this was a good role for her at the time.

          Matteuzzi is not everyone’s cup of tea. But most likely that’s because of his voice-type which is unusual and sometimes can make the unaccustomed wince. He probably comes closer to some of the tenors who sang in Rossini’s day than many today. I believe Philip Gossett made some remarks to that effect when talking about the singers that made the current Rossini revival a reality.

      • la vociaccia says:

        I really loved her Lucia at the Met a while back. She had/has a gorgeous voice and she sings and acts with great conviction.

  • Krunoslav says:

    Nice review. Another major difference between the versions is that Rossini;s never leaves Venice, whereas Boito and Verdi jettisoned Venice altogether, and the whole opera takes place in Cyprus. So different tensions prevail.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Doing the play for most of last year helped me realise what a very, very good job Boito did on the OTELLO libretto. ‘Gia Nella Notte Densa’ is an extraordinary compression of about three different scenes. The only misstep, as I have mentioned before, is the way the final scene’s concentration on the hero ends up muffling what should be Emilia’s big moment.

      • MontyNostry says:

        I’m afraid that mention of the role of Emilia always makes me think of wobbly mezzos shrieking “Apreuuht-ay! Apreuuht-ay!” at a key moment in the action. Not a role that generally gets with a first-class voice, both sadly and predictably, considering it’s such a non-event.

        • armerjacquino says:

          Which is why I think the way the scene is written is a shame. It should be a role for a principal, not a comprimaria. In the play she suddenly becomes the moral compass of the whole piece- despite her guilt at having both stolen and lied. Ought to have been Verdi mezzo catnip.

          • MontyNostry says:

            Quite. It should be a role for an Amneris rather than a Marcellina.

  • kashania says:

    I heard a broadcast of this opera once a few years ago and remember being very favourably impressed by the music, which to my ears, got stronger and stronger as the opera progressed. But my goodness, I barely recognise Shakespeare’s story after reading the plot descriptions. Thanks for the review!

  • willym says:

    Just a small thing but I think it has yet to be presented in Salzburg -- we’re getting it on the last day of the Pfingstfestspiel. One performance only and unfortunately without Camarena who will be otherwise occupied earlier in the weekend singing Don Ramiro. Barry Banks will be singing the Roderigo and the conductor is Jean-Christophe Spinosi.

    Spinosi is also conducting the Cenerentola. Must admit that’s making me a bit apprehensive. He’s not a conductor I have much enjoyed and I recall the Scala orchestra rebelled against him and his Rossini style a few seasons ago and he withdrew from a Barbiere to be replaced by Michele Mariotti. It might have just been the Scala orchestra being ornery or they may have had good reason.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      Just checked:actually Rocha will sing Rodrigo, Banks Iago.

      • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

        Here’s the Salzburg cast:

        John Osborn, Otello
        Cecilia Bartoli, Desdemona
        Peter Kálmán, Elmiro
        Edgardo Rocha, Rodrigo
        Barry Banks, Jago
        Liliana Nikiteanu, Emilia
        Nicola Pamio, Doge

        I’ll be there for the performance next month (you, too. Willym?). Thanks,Ivy, for saving me some time doing my homework!

        • Clita del Toro says:

          A while back I watched the stream of Rossini ‘s Otello with Bartoli ( can’t remember from where?)The opera and Bartoli are not my cup of tea. I was bored and turned it off.

        • willym says:

          Ciao JML
          Yes we are arriving from Munich on the 4th -- Cenerentola that evening -- giving a few things a miss this year but taking in the two religious pieces on Sunday (how appropriate) the di Donato and Otello. Are you there the whole weekend?

          I should have looked at that cast list a bit closer… my bad…..

          • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

            Willym, here’s my schedule for Pfingsten:

            07 June – La Cenerentola – 19:00
            08 June – Stabat Mater – 12:00
            08 June – Petite messe solennelle – 17:00
            08 June – Rossini Gala – 20:00
            09 June – Joyce DiDonato Recital – 11:00
            09 June – Otello – 16:00

            Uh, I think you need to check your dates, as the festival doesn’t start till 05 June (the first “Ceneretola” is that night; the second is 07 June).

            If you want to meet, send me an e-mail at Marianne_Leitmetzerin@aol.de.

            • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

              By the way, I was on the floor with laughter at “Rhabarberbarbara” on your blog!

            • willym says:

              Right you are we arrive there the 4th but the Cenerentola is on the 5th -- we are arriving from Canada the 2 and I like to give myself some time to get over a bit of the jet lag.

              Would be lovely to meet up at some point. I’ll send you an e-mail.

              Glad you enjoyed the Rhababa etc… LOL

        • redbear says:

          On http://www.francemusique.fr it mentions that Otello was recorded when Bartoli et. al. were in Paris last month. I looked but it hasn’t been broadcast yet. Here is what I did find by clicking on “Concerts”:
          Francesco Cavalli’s “Elena” from l’Opéra de Lille
          ?Britten’s “Curlew River” from l’Opéra de Lyon
          ?“The Tempest,” of Purcell from the Cité de la Musique “Herculanum” of Félicien David l’Opéra Royal de Versailles.
          Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and “Turn of the Screw” from l’Opéra de Lyon?“Arabella” from the Met.
          “Into the Woods,” by Sondheim, Théâtre du Châtelet
          “Pelléas et Mélisande” of Debussy from the Théâtre Graslin in Nantes.
          Starting from the bottom, you only have hours (minutes?) to hear the Debussy before it vanishes.

    • oedipe says:

      It’s the same cast as in the TCE performances in Paris: Rocha sang Rodrigo and Banks sang Iago. Rocha was good, Banks was disappointing. Spinosi conducted poorly and got booed.

      • willym says:

        Was afraid of that with Spinosi… he has conducted a few concerts I’ve attended in the past and frankly I find him a bit of a clown! At least in the pit he will be out of sight but…. I still wonder at him being chosen but…..

        • Buster says:

          Spinosi and his amateurish sounding orchestra (Ensemble Matheus) really messed up that TCE Otello big time. It did not help I heard the great Alberto Zedda conduct the same Leiser Caurier production a couple of months earlier. Zedda had a cast that listened to each other much better, with Gregory Kunde in great shape as Otello, and a fine Carmen Romeu as Emilia. Romeu reminded me of Lella Cuberli, who was the first Emilia I have seen, and still the greatest. That Zedda Otello will be out on CD, by the way.

  • Patrick Mack says:

    “…that sounds as if she’s both spitting out words like sunflower seeds and inhaling a helium balloon at the same time”. Hilarity. I wish I’d written that!

    • Poison Ivy says:

      Thanks Patrick, I actually don’t know why Bartoli uses this particular mannerism so often. Its even more prominent in her studio recordings. I think the breathiness is to sound more girlish but it really breaks up the vocal line.

      • armerjacquino says:

        I agree, although I think the aim is immediacy rather than girlishness.

  • Will says:

    When critiquing operas made from Shakespeare, one thing to keep in mind is that virtually none was adapted directly from his plays with the exception of Verdi’s. They were taken from the source novels Shakespeare used; from plays by contemporary authors inspired by the Shakespeare scripts; from heavily adapted, corrupt versions that were developed by English actor/managers in the 18th century that changed plot points and added lots of new material including happy endings for many of the tragedies; or from heavily reworked translations by respected authors like Dumas and Hugo who strove to bend Shakespeare to French concepts of plot structure, character development and language suitable for the stage.

    From Purcell’s The Fairy Queen to a Hamlet made into a traditional Peking Opera that apparently premiered last February, there are approximately 300 operas made “from Shakespeare” (I was able to assemble a list of 287 for a symposium on Operas Based on Shakespeare I gave in March). Only a handful have survived into the modern repertory and/or been recorded.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      Hi Will, I agree, although I think many Shakespeare adaptations have taken liberties with the plot without harming the overall dramatic arc. I’m thinking in particular of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran.

    • m. croche says:

      “a Hamlet made into a traditional Peking Opera that apparently premiered last February”

      The Shanghai Municipal Beijing-Opera Troupe version of “Wangzi Fuchou Ji“ has actually been around for 10 years already. I saw it back in 2009 or so. Since then, there has also been a (rather experimental) Yueju/Shaoxing opera adaptation of “Hamlet”. There is also a Taiwanese opera (gezaixi) version of the story from, I believe, the splendid Chunmei Taiwanese Opera Troupe.

      The history of operatic adaptations of Shakespeare in China goes all the way back to late Imperial Chengdu. Alexander Huang has a book on Chinese Shakespeare adaptations which includes operatic adaptations. I’ve only read excerpts of it, but it would be an interesting read for those who want to know more about global adaptations of Shakespeare.

      • m. croche says:

        Apparently I screwed up the link to the Yueju/Shaoxing opera version of Hamlet. Here it is, replete with onstage ship…

        • Will says:

          Actually, the version I was referring to was developed by a company in suburban Washington DC. I have a couple of the Chinese adaptations on my list. The company here in the U.S. has as part of its mission the preservation and promotion of traditional Chinese Opera in this country.

          • m. croche says:

            Ah, that’s a new one to me. Really quite commendable for an overseas troupe to develop a completely new script. I hope it pays off for them with some extra performances.

            Was just watching the Taiwanese Clapper Opera (Yuju) DVD of “Measure for Measure” last night. Apparently it was designed in part to coincide with a Shakespeare conference in Cambridge, England. Uneven singing, unfortunately (tape of a live performance) but the woman who takes up the role of “Vincentino” ( here the King of Nanping) is a really wonderful performer by the name of Wang Hailing. She is currently the heart and soul of that company. She plays mostly old-woman roles, so she knows how to command a great deal of authority with her voice -- a skill Western operagoers know how to cherish.

            Tonight perhaps I’ll take up a Huangmei opera version of “Wu Shi Sheng Fei”, aka “Much Ado About Nothing”.

  • Will says:

    PS — I should have written, “none was adapted directly from [Shakespeare's] plays UNTIL Verdi’s.” The 20th and 21st centuries have seen many that came directly from the Shakespeare texts.

  • Poison Ivy says:

    The name to pencil in is a Edgardo Rocha. He’s climbing the ranks with astonishing rapidity. He’s set to make his debut in Paris Opera later this year and I know he sang Ramiro in Seattle already.

    • antikitschychick says:

      lovely voice! thanks for posting this clip and for the review Ivy :-D .

      Osborn and Cecilia sound absolutely fabulous in the above clip as well…the music is great…its unfortunate the acting is not that convincing…they are both singing (albeit gloriously) to the audience, she basically pins herself to the wall; he comes running and stabs her. Not a hint of struggle. Also, the close ups of Cecilia in that robe are not doing her any favors. A tighter fit and perhaps a different color such as red or black would have been better imho. I’d still like to watch/hear the whole performance though.

  • mercadante says:

    Rossini ‘s OTELLO is not based on Shakespeare, on any adaptation of Shakespeare and the librettist may not have even known that there ever was a man named Shakespeare. It is based on an Italian story from the 15th century. That is why the plot line, setting, and character list is different. However, even Byron made the same mistake when he saw the original run in Naples and critiqued it, but his provincial chauvinism is understandable.

    • armerjacquino says:

      Not quite true. Cinthio’s UN CAPITANO MORO has no Roderigo character, no father for Desdemona, and refers solely to ‘the Ensign’- it’s Shakespeare who named him Iago. So Salsi and Rossini were adapting Shakespeare just as much as Cinthio. I reckon you owe Byron an apology!

      • PetertheModest says:

        In Cinthio, the Moor and the Ensign kill D(i)sdemona by pulling down the bedroom ceiling on her and claiming it was an accident due to a structural defect.

        • armerjacquino says:

          Yep- having beaten her to death with sandbags first. Now there’s a scene for an opera!