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.