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First staged in Naples in 1816, seventy years before Verdi' very different treatment of the same subject, Rossini' Otello, based on Berio di Salsa' play rather than that of Shakespeare, makes full use of no fewer than three lead tenors. In the 19th cen
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Michael Spyres is a joy to hear in the title role. His tone is full and refulgent with a satisfying ring when needed. He, and all the singers, cope admirably with the many rapid divisions in the music. The other two tenors sound a bit weedy when compared with him. This is particularly true of Filippo Adami who sings Rodrigo. His vocal acting is very fine, but the tone is dry and uningratiating, at least to my ears. Giorgio Trucco as Iago is easier on the ears and presents a sufficiently nasty characterization. Ugo Guagliardo is adequate, if unremarkable, as Desdemona's father, Elmiro.
Jessica Pratt offers an involved and well-sung account of Desdemona. Geraldine Chauvet (Elimia) has such a lovely voice one wishes the part had more to it. The first act duet for the women is one of the highlights of this recording.
The sound quality is good, though there are a few moments when the balance between stage and pit isn't optimal, and I got the impression once or twice that details of the orchestral writing were being lost. Still, this didn't impair the overall enjoyment of this recording.
There are two other choices of recordings of this opera. The first issued, and to my mind still the best, is the Philips recording from 1978, conducted by Jesus Lopez Cobos, with Jose Carreras, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey all at the peak of their talents. The other option is on the Opera Rara label. This benefits from the excellent scholarship Opera Rara always bring to their works, but the result has always seemed a bit lacking in drama to me. The recording under review receives my enthusiastic recommendation, but I'd still go for the Philips recording as a first choice.
It is also worth noting that of the opera's three acts the final act is also the one that is closest to Shakespeare. Plus, it is no coincidence that many features of that act are mirrored in Verdi's version as well... and most notably in the Willow song and Prayer that graces both compositions. In Rossini's version the prayer is accompanied by a reduced orchestration that features wind instruments. In Verdi's version of his prayer... the Ave Maria... the reduced orchestration features muted strings. Both are effective in their own way.
Unfortunately, Rossini, unlike Verdi was a composer of his time. As a result the libretto of Otello is based on a play that was popular in Naples where Rossini was serving as composer in residence. Consequently, its libretto is several mutations away from the Shakespeare original. Verdi, on the other hand based his piece more closely on the original. Other than telescoping the action to better fit the operatic stage, Verdi's principle deviation consists of eliminating Shakespeare's original first act and thus confining the action to the chaotic and untamed world of Cyprus. Rossini's librettist chooses to have all the action remain in the relatively serene world of Venice, and as such the opera has the feel of Shakespeare's first act throughout. In addition, in the Rossini adaptation the character of Rodrigo becomes a conflation of Shakespeare's Cassio and Roderigo. Furthermore, and more damaging to the scenario, instead of the famous handkerchief, Iago uses a forged love letter as the basis for his dastardly scheme. Also, for the record, Desdemona is stabbed by Otello as opposed to being suffocated to death.
The only dramatic advantage to having the action remain in Venice concerns the fact that Rossini was able to have an off-stage gondolier quote the famous lines from Dante's La Divina Commedia where it is noted that there is no greater misery than remembering past happiness in times of anguish. ("Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi nel tempo felice della miseria...") This scene occurs in that superb third act and is not only exquisitely beautiful but is also quite effective and is the singular case where one can make an argument for the opera possibly improving on at least a small portion of the original. Still, along those lines, it has been said that Verdi's version is superior to that of Shakespeare in its dramatic thrust and tightening of the action... and in that regard I certainly must concur. In fact it is one of the few cases where an opera has improved on the original and when that original is Shakespeare that is an achievement in itself!
As for the recording at hand, it preserves a first-rate live performance. The only shortcoming concerns the role of Rodrigo where the tenor is not up to the recent standards that have been set for the performance of this music by the likes of a whole host of marvelous tenors before the public today. Still, the tenor gets through all the notes if not with the ease and satisfying tone of the best that are currently available. In his defense, all of the other tenors that grace complete commercial recordings have not been totally successful with the part either.
At this point it must be noted that at the time of its composition there was the equivalent of a "three tenor" craze in Naples, and as a result the roles of Otello, Rodrigo, and incredibly Iago were all assigned to the tenor register. Indeed, Rossini's next opera for Naples Armida would have a trio for three tenors. In any event, this allowed Rossini to explore the possibilities inherent in the different types of tenors that he had at his disposal. Consequently, Rodrigo is the highest and most florid as befits his character, Iago is the lowest and most sinister, with Otello being the most heroic. The tenor role of Iago is the least demanding and it poses no problems for its interpreter here. This brings us to the title role. Michael Spryes has a heroic sounding voice, copes well with the coloratura, and most importantly makes us feel for Otello's predicament. Along these lines the Desdemona of Jessica pratt reveals a voice of dramatic proportions. Furthermore, like her Otello, she is able to articulate her coloratura passages in a manner that makes them apt, expressive, and meaningful.
The main alternatives to this recording are the classic Philips set with a young José Carerras and a posh Opera Rara set featuring Bruce Ford. The former unfortunately features the old school of Rossini singing as far as the tenors are concerned, while the later epitomizes the new school of Rossini singing... even though some of the sounds made don't fall easily on the ear. The Philips set features the outstanding Desdemoma of Federica von Stade, while the soprano on the Opera Rara set sounds a bit undernourished with a voice a size or so too small for the part. The main attraction of the Opera Rara set concerns its appendix, which consists of some alternative versions of the score and that includes the happy ending that the Papal censor imposed on the piece when it was initially performed in Rome. Of course the price for such completeness is an additional disc.
A couple of textual notes: unlike all other recordings, the duet in which Otello confronts Desdemona in the last act is performed in Rossini's original version where he pertinently quotes the "calumny motive" from Don Basilio's aria in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Rossini eventually altered the passage. However, I personally prefer his original thoughts even though they might bring to mind a situation from an opera of a comic nature, as to my ears the motive sounds more sinister than the one which eventually replaced it. In addition, the harp introduction to the Willow Song is slightly different compared to all other recordings that I have heard, but this is an extremely minor deviation and possibly has to do with the fact that the edition used was newly prepared for this production as opposed to being based on the version from the Rossini Foundation.
In the final analysis, this Naxos set is probably the best overall commercially available performance. It is not absolutely perfect, but gives one a valid feel for the drama and in a manner that is mostly vocally satisfying. In addition, the conducting is similarly effective.
"Justifiably overshadowed by Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece, Rossini’s Otello suffered terribly in the last 150 years. This beautiful opera, first performed in Naples in 1816 and very popular soon thereafter, was nearly ignored after the composer’s death and in the 20th century.
Rossini wrote it for Naples at age 24 about the same time as his ever popular Barbiere and La Cenerentola. However, anyone seriously interested in Othello of Shakespeare will be severely disappointed. Except for the 3rd act, the libretto by the Marchese Berio di Salsa took extreme liberties with the play, changed the plot, the location; no love duet, no Cassio.., no Cyprus…, no handkerchief. Everything takes place in Venice and the chief competitor for Desdemona’s hand is Rodrigo, a minor character in Shakespeare.
But the opera! A wonderful collection of arias, trios and ensembles here immaculately performed by a group of young artists at the Rossini festival in Wildbad, Germany. Antonino Fogliani, young Italian conductor vigorously conducts with great flair and sensitivity in the great Rossinian style. His success is much helped by the Czech orchestra with their legendary wind players.
There are 3 major tenor roles in the opera (Otello,Rodrigo & Jago) perhaps because the original theatre group in Naples had an overabundance of tenors. Each of these are murderously difficult, especially Rodrigo who is a high tenor, and Filippo Adami is sensational with the Rossini fioraturas. Powerful American tenor Michael Spyres is in lower tessitura and sings Otello characterfully and flawlessly. English soprano Jessica Pratt,is strong and heartfelt in the role of Desdemona. All supporting roles are equally fine.
Before ending I’d like to commend Naxos for undertaking the huge task of recording all of Rossini’s operas and if I may add, their uncompromising excellence overshadows many earlier recordings of other famous recording companies. Bravo Naxos!"
(PS As a further instance of a revival of interest for this opera: please check out Medici TV's video with the great John Osborn in the title role & Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona, certainly a spectacular production.)