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Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
13 Feb 2010

Otello in Montpellier (version concert)

Concert opera has a long and glorious tradition in Montpellier. Each year the Orchestra National de Montpellier regales us with one or two during the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier (July).

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

Otello: Badri Maisuradze; Desdemona: Barbara Haveman; Iago: Sergey Murzaev; Emilia: Muriel Souty; Cassio: Maurizio Pace; Roderigo: Franck Bard; Lodovico: Christian Helmer; Montano: Alec Avedissian.Orchestre National de Montpellier LR. Chorus of the Opéra National de Montpellier LR. Conductor: Lawrence Foster. Chorus Director: Noëlle Geny.


In recent years Donizetti’s Il Duca d’Alba (2007) is an example, or Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Fedra (2008), both conducted by Enrique Mazzola. Lalo’s Fiesque (2006) conducted by Alain Altinoglu boasted tenor Roberto Alagna in the title role (Léonore was to have been la Gheorghiu …). Montpellier’s long list of concert operas includes rare Baroque titles as well as familiar titles like Fidelio — but in the 1812 version. The usual criteria seems to be musically brilliant operas that likely will not be staged ever again (and some of them were not even staged in their own time).

The announcement of a version concert of Verdi’s Otello, hardly the usual contender for such an honor, engendered some mid-winter operatic excitement, and anticipation of possible new revelations into the mysteries of one of the pinnacles of all opera.

Montpellier is sometimes denigrated as “that provincial town that thinks it is Paris,” and in fact the same architect who redeveloped les Halles of Paris took on the urban renewal of Montpellier centre, creating a giant, always lively promenade with the 1888 Comedie opera house at its head and the 1990 Opéra Berlioz at its foot. The Opéra Berlioz is used for the larger nineteenth century repertory, the Comedie for eighteenth century and smaller repertory. Consequently the massive Otello was in the splendid new opera house. The acoustic of the Opéra Berlioz has proven itself better adapted to opera, i.e. pit and stage, than for concert. Otello is loud, sometimes very loud. The orchestra shell amplifies these forte’s even more resulting in a shattered treble, and very limited transparency, faults rarely apparent in its staged operas.

The distinguished American conductor Lawrence Foster is the new music director of the Orchestra National de Montpellier. He too boasts an impressive resume of concert opera.

Without the stage opera loses its essential persona, and becomes an abstract form that is very transparent and unforgiving. Just now in Montpellier, after the initial excitement of the Verdi’s opening storm, and the titillation that something magnificent was going to happen it became very much opera business as usual. Revelations were in short supply, and in fact there were even periods of tedium. This Otello never ignited after its initial sparks.

Possibly Otello is a poor choice for a concert piece. Its reputation as one of the few masterpieces of the repertory that truly melds music with drama demands that it be musically driven to be dramatically alive. With Verdi’s actors behind the conductor (i.e. not on stage facing the conductor in the pit) a vital communication link was missing. Two major scenes underscored this lack — the hugely complex Act I fight and the daunting Act III septet when Mo. Foster focused on keeping his orchestral and choral forces in order, and out right abdicated his dramatic responsibilities. Had his actors been under his baton perhaps they would have inspired some theater into his beat. As it was Mo. Foster delivered these scenes as squarely paced measures of music you had to get through somehow. We were deprived of the build-up to the exposition of Otello’s triumphal strength and the horror of his public denigration. Both were decidedly pale moments in this concert performance.

The Otello was Georgian tenor Badri Maisuradze, a bear of a man who did not need black face to distinguish himself as an exotic creature. But Mr. Maisuradze could not get his words out. Though he sang with almost enough super-human force to qualify as a real Otello his text projection was non-existent, eviscerating his character. Mr. Maisuradze is a fine artist to be sure, his Act III monologue and his death were beautifully sung.

The one interpreter who succeeded in inhabiting her character was Dutch soprano Barbara Havemen, and this despite some troubling pitch approximations. Mme. Haveman possesses a large voice of sterling clarity, and perhaps the pitch issue is a by-product of this voice. She delivers brilliantly clear high notes, and she descends expressively into a guttural chest voice. The high point of this concert Otello was her Willow song, and particularly her Ave Maria when all the pathos of this first heroine of Italian melodramma was keenly present. The actual presense of the English horn rendered this great Verdi number musically vivid, and vindicated opera as concert for these few minutes.

Iago was Russian baritone Sergey Murzaev, a facile artist who served up a vocally exuberant villain but did not succeed in imbuing any sense of malice into his character, even with the help of Verdi’s exuberant Act II woodwinds. Neither Mo. Foster nor Mr. Murzaey touched the nuances of this subtle character who does in fact sing very loud, and that Mr. Murzaey did.

Otello and Iago’s nemesis Cassio was sung by Italian tenor Maurizio Pace. At least this singer was not snatched from an opera company’s young artist program to attempt this pivotal role. Mr. Pace seemed to be a mature artist, almost of the size needed to thwart Iago’s ambitions and ignite Otello’s jealosy. The fine vocal accomplishment of French bass baritone Christian Helmer as Lodovico was compromised by his youth, unable to embody the majesty and power of Venice.

Concert opera is staged. Not only do we obviously associate the interpreter with the character (and we do not have the costume to help us) but we place every movement on the stage in a musico dramatic context. The striking motions of the double basses performing their solo at the opening of Act IV creates musical and dramatic excitement, as does Verdi’s wrenching solo cello, not to mention watching the bassoons double the cellos, and the oboe morph into the serpent. And the list goes on. This is the domain of concert opera.

This concert performance was a mess with performers walking on and off the stage throughout the performance, often during musical passages of primary importance. A large children’s chorus trooped on and off the stage during Act II. Apparently there was no one in charge of the staging of this concert opera. Otello deserved better.

Michael Milenski

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