Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise

A-OP-Otello (Rossini)Rossini’s “Otello” is a Powerful Surprise 

In all the years I have been giving my “Shakespeare in Opera” talks, I have lamented the absence of video versions of Nicolai’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and Rossini’s “Otello.” At last half of that lack has been satisfied by the appearance of the latter on a Decca DVD.

It was filmed at the Zurich Opera House in 2012 with Muchai Tang conducting the Orchestra Scintilla and a very strong cast. Alas, the program notes claim that it is set in modern times to show that racial bigotry still exists—as if the play were about that! The only one who hates Othello (or Otello in this case) is Desdemona’s father (here named Elmiro). But in this production, a silent bit is added in which a white man treats a black servant with disdain. Frankly, I think the setting is simply to save the cost of Renaissance costuming.

This is the very first time I have seen this work performed. I knew that the first two acts were a pale modification of the original: no Cassio, no handkerchief but a letter falling into the wrong hands, no slow poisoning of Otello’s mind by Iago, and certainly no great depth of characterization. The third act, however, follows Shakespeare’s fifth act faithfully. (Of course, it all suffers when compared to Verdi’s masterpiece; but that is not fair in judging Rossini’s work.)

Desdemona and Emilia in the last act

This opera calls for three lead tenors (!) and here all three acquit themselves nicely: John Osborn (Otello), Javier Camarena (Rodrigo), and Edgardo Rocha (Jago). The Jago-Rodrigo duet (No, non temer) in Act I is powerful and the ensemble that follows is quite impressive. Since Emilia (Liliana Nikiteanu) has no handkerchief to give her husband, she is merely there to give Desdemona someone to sing to. Peter Kalman’s Elmiro is strongly sung and well acted.

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Bartoli, when not being strangled

The Big Draw here, however, is Cecelia Bartoli, whose unique manner of singing seems in the style of the early 1800s (“Otello” premiered in 1816). Her acting is intense and her lower notes are a marvel. It is not her fault that her Willow Song in Act III is staged with her standing still and facing the audience rather than Emilia.

It is known that Rossini composed an alternate happy ending at the request of the head of the Naples Opera, and those who wish to hear it may do so on the Opera Rara CD set of this work. (My favorite line in both versions is Desdemona’s exclamation, “What a day!” Surely the understatement of all time.)

It is also noteworthy that the orchestra plays on “authentic” instruments, giving perhaps the sound that Rossini wanted. The score is complete except for a chorus at the start of the Act I finale—a minor point for those not familiar with this work. But the “modern” setting and costuming, to me, are a strong minus for a video.

The running time is 156 minutes and there are subtitles in seven languages.

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