In explaining the relative obscurity of Rossini’s version of Shakespeare Moorish tragedy, Kern contradicts himself more than once, often within a couple lines: “It is still performed widely in the opera-houses of today” is soon followed by “Revivals of Otello in the modern era, the first of which took place as late as 1954, have not been so numerous as might have been expected.”
Exactly whose expectations that may be, other than the writer’s, remains unclear. Even if one proposed the tragic loss of Verdi and Boito’s masterpiece from the canon, Rossini and librettist Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa’s version would probably be no more frequently staged today than, say, Zelmira or Semiramide (even Kern admits that in the years just before Verdi's Otello, Rossini’s version had already become a rarity). The style and tropes of Rossini’s “serious” operas simply haven’t aged well, and whereas patches of indifferent music don’t really hurt the comedies much, the lack of dramatic tension in the serious operas can make for some sad musical longueurs.
The problem in the first two acts in particular is that the rigorous demands of opera construction at the time mean that the story advances oh so slowly, as each character is introduced and has his or her own number. By act three, however, Rossini is at his best, and the loveliness of Desdemona’s final scene really does rival that of Verdi’s. Jessica Pratt takes this role and exhibits a warm, sweet voice of real quality. Among a large group of high-lying tenors, Michael Spyres in the title role stands out with a richer, more baritonal quality. His scenes with Jago, another tenor, don’t have the fierceness of those between Verdi's Otello and Iago, however. There is no Cassio in this fairly different telling of the story; Rodrigo has a significant part, and Filippo Adami — yes, another tenor — has a pointed, tart voice perfect for the role.
This is a live recording, from the 2008 Rossini in Wildbad Festival. Don’t worry about the defects of many live recordings — stage noise is minimal, and voices are well-captured in a natural mix with the orchestra. Antonino Fogliani leads the Virtuosi Brunensis forces, and they produce a warm, propulsive account, although not always with perfect intonation.
Intrepid shoppers may be able to find the studio version of this opera from a couple decades back, with Jose Carreras. For anyone else interested in this rarity, this version should suffice. The cast may not be familiar, but they are fresh and dedicated to their roles. And then there’s the Naxos price. No libretto is included; the essay joins a detailed synopsis and artist biographies, in English and German.