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Gioachino Rossini - Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia

Opernhaus Zurich, 2012 | Muhai Tang, Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier, John Osborn, Cecilia Bartoli, Peter Kálmán, Javier Camarena, Edgardo Rocha, Liliana Nikiteanu, Nicola Pamio, Ilker Arcayürek | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 8th March 2012

There’s always going to be some difficulty in staging Rossini’s Otello ossia Il Moro di Venezia, and it’s not just because of the liberties that Rossini’s opera takes with Shakespeare’s work. True, the libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi doesn’t really keep to the development or characterisation of Shakespeare’s work, but it does manage to get to the heart of the drama and retain some of the dark mood of the piece. No, much of the difficulty with staging Otello is due to the often static nature of the work which is still tied closely to the conventions of opera seria, with long-winded expressions of agonising emotions and a great deal of repetition.

Otello

It’s only the brilliance of Rossini’s musical inventiveness in the scoring that makes it work so well as an opera, matching the music more closely to the moods, reducing recitative and solo lamentations in favour of concerted pieces that carry the drama through, playing out the drama through sung conversations. It doesn’t always manage to break free from the restrictions of the format however, which can be rather punishing on the singers and the audience, so a stage production requires a certain amount of inventiveness as well. Directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who failed to enliven Halévy’s semiseria Clari for the Zurich Opera, despite the best efforts of its champion Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn (also on board here), the team fare rather better with Otello, but one suspects that the reason for its success here – and why their previous collaboration wasn’t quite so successful – has much to do with Rossini’s rather more invigorating writing.

Initially, things don’t look promising in the rather dreary Act I. There’s nothing at all wrong with the updating the work to a modern setting, to a “corridors of power” wood-panelled waiting room, populated by figures in formal suits and high-ranking military naval uniforms, with rooms leading off in the background where various committees no doubt plan future strategies. It’s as good as setting as any for the plotting and scheming that lies at the heart of the work, but unfortunately, it proves to be rather dreary and static for the opening dramatic exposition. Figures standing around, there’s a bit of slow pacing up and down, and little to enliven the characterisation or solemn declamation as the Moor Otello returns battle, having defeated the Turks and regained Cyprus for Venice as the centre of the Adriatic Republic.

Otello

While there is professional jealousy over Otello’s success on the part of Rodrigo and Iago that is set-up in Act I, and some consideration of the Moor’s outsider status as a black-skinned African, evidently the main focus of the rivalry is over Otello gaining favour with Desdemona. In this version however, Otello is already secretly married to Desdemona, so when Iago suggests that she may be unfaithful, it really requires no great manipulation – Otello, insecure about his own position, is all too ready to mistrust Desdemona. Being somewhat opera seria in structure, the expressions of emotional turmoil are however given precedence over any consistency in characterisation or motivation, which makes this dramatically weak and inconsistent. The nature of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship has scarcely been established by the plot and by little actual confidences shared between them (Verdi would do this much better in his version), only in Desdemona’s expressions of her love to Emilia, her lady in waiting. If it’s all insufficiently established in dramatic terms, the music makes it much more compelling.

Act II and Act III in particular see Rossini at his best, breaking free of those operatic restrictions, using duets, ensembles and rising repetition to ramp up the tension and emotional fever pitch of the situation. Even if the stage direction gives the performers little to do in the absence of any conventional drama, Rodrigo’s ‘Che ascolto’ in Act II could hardly be more chilling, given a particularly powerful delivery here by Javier Camarena. In an opera that requires no less than three tenors in demanding singing roles, that intensity is matched in Otello and Iago’s Act II scene. If dramatically it’s less than convincing, musically it’s powerful, avoiding recitative and putting the emotion into the singing. Working with this kind of material, John Osborn does a good line in all-consuming jealousy in ‘Non m’inganno’ that is matched by Edgardo Rocha’s Iago enjoying the thrill of twisting people to his will, Rossini managing to encapsulate both emotions within the duetto.

Desdemona is rather less well-defined, carrying an over-urgency in everything she sings, which means that Cecilia Bartoli often sounds rather strident. No, not shrill – never that. Bartoli is still one of the finest – if not the finest – mezzo-soprano bel canto coloratura singers in the world, at her best when singing Rossini, and she is in terrific voice here. Barring her Act III ‘Willow Song’ however, the role is lacking in colour and shading, and it comes across more perhaps as exaggeratedly strident. It’s still an astonishingly display of singing virtuosity, Bartoli moreover also managing to bring real character to her role. She is absolutely chilling at the end of Act II and throughout Act III, making her inevitable fate at the hands of Otello (the scene had been reworked for a happy end, but the original is used here), dramatically shocking and highly effective. And does Act III contain the earliest example of a ‘mad scene’? It comes close and is certainly depicted as such in the production, Desdemona scrawling on the walls, the whole scene working well with the score.

Happily then, after the rather unimaginative first Act and start of the second, Leiser and Caurier’s stage direction picks up to meet the exceptionally high standard of the singing and the intensity of the musical arrangements – superbly conducted under Muhai Tang. The cold emptiness of Desdemona’s bedroom at the start of Act II and in Act III (perhaps this is how it’s intended to appear for a reason) are necessarily minimal, but the success of the production hinges on the playing out of the seeds of jealousy sown by Iago. This scene takes place in what looks like a seedy Turkish bar, with a fridge and a pool table. If the contrast to the preceding (and subsequent) scenes only underlines the outsider status of Otello, it’s effective, but it also proves to be the ideal place for the barroom brawl that erupts between the highly charged natures (wound up of course by Iago) of Otello and Rodrigo, the two men grabbing pool cues and heading for the back alley through the fire-doors at the back, despite Desdemona’s vain (over-urgent and strident) attempts to restrain them.

It’s clear then that the directors have recognised the difficulties of staging Otello and approached it well, using broader strokes in the sets to contrast the nature of the Moor with those of the state, using lighting effectively for mood, but also seeking to find smaller details to highlight. It isn’t always possible to bring any great subtlety to the work within the restrictions of the libretto and the almost opera seria-like arrangements, but this is more than compensated for by the vibrant delivery of the score and the outstanding singing performances.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.

Ariadne

Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.

Ariadne

Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.

Ariadne

It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.