Rossini's Otello is one of his most important creations... important not only regarding the Rossini canon... but also of supreme importance in the development of Italian opera in general. In fact the opera was so respected in the Nineteenth Century that when Verdi wrote his version of Otello he actually considered naming his opera Iago. It has been said that Rossini reached his maturity as a dramatist with the third act of Otello. It is not that the opera's first two acts are deficient, but rather that the third act is something exceptional... and it is indeed a thing of great beauty from its opening grave orchestral introduction to its brusque and abrupt conclusion. In fact, Rossini considered that final act, along with the second act of Guillaume Tell, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia as one of the high water marks of his achievements in the field of opera.
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.