Just as Rossini’s version of Il barbiere di Siviglia completely eclipsed Paisiello’s version, so Verdi’s Otello sounded the death knell for an earlier version; ironically enough by Rossini. It’s a bit surprising as the Rossini version is not bad at all despite having a rather patchy libretto and being hard to cast. The first thing one notices is that the story isn’t even close to Shakespeare/Verdi. This is because the libretto was based on a French play by Jean-François Ducis that was popular in the 18th century. I don’t know whether the plot’s weaknesses are due to Ducis or the librettist but there are a few. There’s no Cassio so the motivation for Jago’s plotting is unclear. All the Venetian notables (bar perhaps the Doge) hate Otello but Jago doesn’t seem to have any special reason for animosity. Between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 Otello is exiled. There is no explanation. The finale is abrupt and weak. Immediately after Otello kills Desdemona the gang of notables burst in to the room and appear to be completely reconciled to Otello and to him marrying Desdemona, despite having spent the rest of the opera chewing chips about this. In fact one could argue that the happy ending variant (yes, there was one) is the more plausible as it would only take the guys to arrive about ten bars sooner for that to be the logical outcome. As it is, Otello listens with incredulity to the change of heart and, not unreasonably, kills himself.
It’s got more than it’s fair share of opera clichés too. These include:
- A father’s curse
- A woman falsely suspected of infidelity on the flimsiest of grounds
- Massive over reaction to same
- An intercepted and misinterpreted love letter
- A love song involving a tree
There are, sadly, no goats.
In the production performed and recorded at Zürich in 2012, Moshe Leiser and Patrick Caurier gave the piece an essentially modern setting which works well enough. They choose to emphasis race/colour as the key element on Otello’s “otherness”. There’s enough (just) in the libretto to support this and they supplement it with, for example, a black waiter being mistreated in Act 1, a portrayal of Otello’s quarters in Act 2 as reflecting his alien tastes and so on. It’s a bit heavy handed and I’m not sure it’s necessary. Otello is not a Venetian patrician and that is enough to condemn him in the eyes of Rodrigo, Jago and the rest. As a thought experiment, imagine if Davy Crockett showed up as a successful leader of British troops in mid 19th century London society and it was discovered that he had secretly married a duke’s daughter. It doesn’t have to be race. being the “wrong sort of chap” is sufficient. The only other element of the production that seems other than straightforward is that we often see Jago lurking in the shadows where he has no right to be. Fait enough.
It’s not easy to cast. It needs five or six tenors (there are a couple of minor roles that could be doubled up), three of which need the full Rossini tenor skill set. It also needs a mezzo or a soprano who can do the Colbran/Malibran thing (this one was written for Colbran but Malibran sang it many times). Another,more conventional, mezzo and a bass round things out. The score is extremely well constructed with showpiece arias for all the main characters and some really interesting duets and trios. The Act 1 duet between Desdemona and Amelia Vorrei, che il tuo pensiero is classic Rossini as is the Act 2 trio Fra tante smanie. There’s also Rossini’s aching version of the Willow Song Assisa a’piè d’un salice which might be the only bit of the opera that’s at all well known.
So to the performances. This is Zürich so no surprise that Desdemona is sung by Cecilia Bartoli. I don’t know if there has been a finer singer of this repertoire since the ‘brans but I surely haven’t seen one. She has it all, Her voice is accurate and beautiful all through the mezzo and soprano range. Assisa a’piè d’un salice is simply heartbreaking. And when she has to do the firebrand thing her coloratura is spot on in every respect. Check out Che smania? This is as good a Bartoli performance as I have seen on video and it has some seriously stiff competition. The three tenors are all really good too. John Osborn takes the title role and makes quite a lot of a character who is painted as a bit one dimensional by the libretto. Fine, robust tenor singing too. Arguably Rodrigo, here much more prominent than in Shakespeare, is a more interesting character. He’s very well played by Javier Camarena who does an especially good job with his set piece Che escolto. Edgardo Rocha rounds out the trio with a nicely weighted Jago. Peter Kálmán is vocally solid and dramatically rather unpleasant in the role of Elmiro, Desdemona’s father, here shown as a real piece of work. The ever reliable, and omnipresent, Liliana Nikiteanu, rounds things out with a nicely sung and very sympathetic Amelia. The orchestra is La Scintilla. It got me wondering how recently Zürich started using this band for 19th century works. Certainly they feature on their 2012 Le comte Ory but not on either of the Fidelio recordings (2004 and 2008). In any event I approve and Muhai Tang gets a lovely performance out of them.
Olivier Simmonet directed the video. It’s unobtrusive and does justice to the , admittedly not over-complex, sets and staging. Picture quality on Blu-ray holds up even in the many rather dimly lit scenes. The DTS-HD sound is top notch and the LPCM stereo is also clear and balanced. There are no extras on the disk but the booklet has a useful essay as well as a synopsis and full track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
Plot holes aside, the music makes this a piece worth seeing and the disk would be worth having for Bartoli’s performance alone. As it is, one gets much more than just that. It’s also currently the only video version in the catalogue.