Though these arguments hold much weight, they also have little
to do with Rossini’s expressive and thoroughly enjoyable score, as was evident in the Opera
Orchestra of New York’s concert performance of the work on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall.
Shakespeare’s work was not as well-known in northern Italy at the time of the opera’s
composition, perhaps accounting for the free treatment that the story received. Berio’s retelling
of the classic tale makes such a mess of things that there is little left of the original drama but the
names of the characters. Lord Byron wrote of the opera in 1818: “They have been crucifying
Othello into an opera,” and in my mind he spoke the truth. Indeed, the story never leaves the
shores of Venice, the signal handkerchief becomes a furtive love letter, Desdemona is stabbed
rather than strangled, and Jago’s role in the drama is lessened while the peripheral Rodrigo
Regardless, the work was hugely successful in the nineteenth century, its popularity lasting until
Verdi’s Otello overtook it in the operatic canon. I would posit that the inevitable association of
the two works is the principal reason that Rossini’s now lesser-known interpretation has fallen
into obscurity as much as it has. Comparisons inevitably paint the earlier in a bad light by virtue
of its much-maligned libretto.
Seen as the product of Rossini, the work is well worth its weight in gold. There are some truly
beautiful moments, though it admittedly lags a bit in the middle. The opening, for instance,
features not one, not two, not even three. . . but FOUR solo tenors singing their hearts out in one
of the most exciting moments of tenor multiplicity in the repertoire. The Act Two confrontation
between Otello and Rodrigo is also a moment of high drama, and Desdemona’s Willow Song is
as hauntingly beautiful as is the more widely-known Verdi version.
The night also belonged to the performers that realized the impossible and sublimely beautiful
bel canto score, for the work cannot stand on its own without talented virtuosos. In fact, this
opera has always been at the mercy of willing and able singers; an abundance of virtuosic tenors
in Naples precipitated the composition of myriad vocal fireworks for the tenor voice. The cast
was led by veteran Rossini interpreter Bruce Ford, a last-minute stand-in for Ramon Vargas.
Ford sang a lot of notes on Wednesday night, all with confidence and ease. Equally impressive
was Kenneth Tarver as Roderigo, whose lyricism and light touch complemented the role. His
high-lying aria, Ah, come mai non senti, was one of the best moments of the night. Solid too was
Robert McPherson as the villainous Jago. His voice was that much louder, harsher than his
colleagues’— well-suited for the antagonist. In the men’s camp it would be remiss not also to
mention Gaston Rivero as the Doge (and later as the Gondolier), the fourth component in the
The preponderance of tenors on the stage precludes any solo female voices for the first half hour
of the work. Furthermore, in a seemingly concerted effort to keep the tessitura of the ensemble
in the human voice’s middle range, the role of Desdemona is written for a mezzo. When we
finally meet Desdemona, she remains a peripheral character — there is no entrance aria for her,
nor is there ever a love duet. Ruxandra Donose nevertheless sang the role beautifully, and the
impassioned Willow Song was the crown jewel of the concert.
If there was a drawback to the performance, it would be that the orchestra was not prepared, and
perhaps more to the point, unenthused about the performance. It is eternally difficult to create
cohesiveness in an opera orchestra, especially one that performs together only a few times per
year. Still, the group was sloppier than most: brass instruments fracked, there was at least one
blatant wrong note, and entrances were not together. On the other hand, the members of the
orchestra performed solos beautifully. The virtuosic instrumental passages typical of Rossini
were right on, and harpist Grance Paradise, Desdemona’s partner in the Willow Song, was as
stunning in the aria as the mezzo.
So hats off to Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra of New York, for performing such an
undervalued work. Queler has long been a champion of lesser-known opera, and her choice of
programming here was excellent. Carry on Ms. Queler!