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Bruce Ford as Otello
23 Jan 2007

OONY Gives Rare Performance of Rossini's Otello

There are three reasons often cited for the paucity of performances of Rossini’s Otello: the horrible hack job of the Shakespearean drama by librettist Francesco Maria Berio, the difficulties in casting an opera requiring at least three top-rate tenor voices, and comparisons with Verdi’s popular opera of the same title.

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 becomes integral.

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 opening.

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!

Sarah Gerk

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