|About this Recording
8.660275-76 - ROSSINI, G.: Otello (Spyres, Pratt, Guagliardo, Cluj Transilvania Philharmonic Choir, Virtuosi Brunensis, Fogliani)
Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868)
Tragedia Lirica in three acts by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa
Otello – Michael Spyres, Tenor
Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj (Chorus master: Cornel Groza)
Rossini, known as the Metternich or Napoleon of Music, was, by some distance, the most-performed composer of his time, but that situation changed completely after his death and there soon followed a dreadful period of musical life without Rossini. Admittedly his music has been rediscovered by the opera-houses of our time but there have been noticeable differences in the frequency of the works that have been given. Apart from the well-known, frequently performed operas, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and L’Italiana in Algeri, there are quite a few that were seldom or never given in Rossini’s lifetime but that are in the repertoire today, such as the four one-act comic operas written for Venice. But there are others that were highly popular in the nineteenth century which, however, appear rather rarely on the opera stages today. In the second category falls Otello, a title which would have come into the minds of Rossini’s contemporaries at the mention of its name, whereas today the question would be asked: “What? Did Rossini also write an Otello?”
Otello was Rossini’s second opera seria written for Naples. He started work on it by May 1816 at the latest; in any event he wrote to his mother about it on 15 May: “It will be wonderful and will enhance my reputation; and if it is at all possible it will open the gates of heaven to me.” A few days later he even announced a date for the first performance which he expected to be during the first days of July. But it came to nothing because Rossini suddenly started work on La gazzetta. At the end of August he was still at work on, or restarted work on, Otello. By now his mother was hearing from him every month, so that at the end of October came the reassuring news that Otello was in a “safe haven”. But this news of success was in direct contrast to the complaint of his impresario Barbaia who five days later—on 5 November—moaned that, apart from a Romance and an introductory duet, nothing had been written. These reports from Rossini and Barbaia are so different that it is impossible to reconcile them. What is certain is that, at first, work on Otello did not progress. In fact Rossini was plunged into a serious creative crisis from which he was liberated only by his association with the city of Venice and by his work there on his Miserere. The melody from the introduction of that sacred work possibly helped to free Rossini from the crisis and it found its way into a short passage sung by the Gondolier in Act 3 of Otello. In any event the opera was ready in time to receive its first performance on 4 December 1816 at the Teatro del Fondo, since the Teatro San Carlo had been burned down shortly before. The combination of singers at the first performance was one which was to become the benchmark of Rossini performances for more than a decade: Isabella Colbran, Giovanni David and Andrea Nozzari.
The first performance of Otello was a success. The press praised in particular the Act 1 Finale, the Trio of Act 2 and Act 3—the first third act that Rossini ever wrote. In contrast to this is the epistolary remark by Carl Borromäus von Miltitz who attended performances of the opera several times immediately after the première and reported on its success, but at the same time said that Act 3 had not met with approval. However, its success in Naples continued. On 18 January 1817 Otello was also performed in the rebuilt Teatro San Carlo and it was there that the 100th performance of it took place as early as 1832, the 150th in 1844 and even the 200th in the 1867/68 season—the last performances to take place in that house for the time being. By that time Il barbiere di Siviglia had achieved only half that number of performances.
The success of Otello was repeated on virtually all the opera stages of the world. 1817 saw first performances of it in the rest of Italy and its first production abroad was in Munich in 1818. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century Otello became the fifth most performed of Rossini’s operas and during the 1830s the second most performed after Il barbiere di Siviglia. This position was maintained in the 1840s until it gave way to Guillaume Tell. Otello remained the third most performed of Rossini’s operas until the 1870s. At the lowest count it achieved only fourth place in the 1880s and by the 1890s fifth place. All in all, the work was sung in at least 87 cities, 26 countries and in eight languages. So Otello belongs to those few Rossini operas which were performed right up to the turn of the century. It is still performed widely in the opera-houses of today.
The widely-held notion that Verdi’s opera of the same name supplanted Rossini’s Otello is untrue. In fact, like almost all of Rossini’s operas, it disappeared from opera stages at the end of the nineteenth century. When Verdi’s opera was first performed, in 1887, Rossini’s once famous Otello was hardly ever given. Indeed, Verdi’s opera might have stood in the way of a revival of Rossini’s opera. Revivals of Otello in the modern era, the first of which took place as late as 1954, have not been as numerous as might have been expected. In any case, in Germany the opera has been given only in Berlin, Brunswick and Weimar. Added to these have been productions in the United States, Italy, Great Britain, France, Belgium and Japan.
After Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, which relied almost entirely on older musical material, Rossini produced an original work for his second opera. Only the overture was not original—it was taken from Sigismondo. As to the rest, there are reminiscences of earlier works, among which the best known is the adoption of a motif from Basilio’s calumny aria from Il barbiere di Siviglia, which Rossini himself removed from the score for a performance of Otello in Paris in the 1820s when it was being performed simultaneously with Il barbiere di Siviglia.
Rossini’s Otello is tailored exclusively to the character of Desdemona. It would not be wrong to say that the opera really should be named after her. In addition Rossini coped successfully with the task of including in it three tenors, so that they could portray musically diverse characters. The rôle of Othello was given to a low tenor, a so-called baritone-tenor (baritenore), while his rival Rodrigo, on the other hand, was a high coloratura tenor. In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for tenors, who began their careers with the rôle of Rodrigo, to sing Othello in later years. With the depiction of the stabbing of Desdemona and of Othello’s subsequent suicide Rossini took a great risk which was rewarded at the première by the public’s response.
The text of Otello was by Berio di Salsa and has often been criticized as a bowdlerization of the Shakespearean play. All too often a libretto which was perceived to be “weak” was measured against the “strong” model of Shakespeare. This criticism, which had its roots in a remark made in a letter by Byron and which was enthusiastically taken up by Stendhal, was, as was so often the case, widely, but wrongly, disseminated; it is an unreasonable comment when applied to the requirements of a libretto. A libretto does not follow the same laws as a play. It is not the job of a libretto to mirror as faithfully as possible the literary model; what it should provide is a text tailor-made for the composer. And that is exactly what Berio di Salsa did.
In a completely professional way he wrote a two-act libretto which ended conventionally with the prima donna’s big aria. At this point in the narrative the relationship between Desdemona and Otello is over, and so, effectively, is the opera. All that follows are the consequences of the bloody deeds that provide Rossini with an almost cynical third act Finale. As for the rest, the subject-matter is older than Shakespeare’s play and this is by no means the only possible interpretation. Berio di Salsa availed himself of another source and made this material his own with the same freedom as had the English dramatist before him, who wrongly made the eponymous hero a coloured man. Berio di Salsa’s direct source-model was the French play Othello or the Moor of Venice by Jean-François Ducis, which was given its première in Paris in 1792, the year in which Rossini was born.
In literature Shakespeare’s play is not often criticized, but it is worth at least trying to revisit Joachim Fernau’s verdict on the work: that Shakespeare’s Othello is nothing but a shallow concoction—the story of an unreasonably jealous man who kills his wife. It follows therefore that any real tragedy is missing from the story. If Rossini and his librettist Berio di Salsa shift the bias in favour of Desdemona, we move away from Shakespeare’s story of a jealous man towards Rossini’s typical north-Italian opera seria—the study of a girl who has to decide between duty (to her father’s arrangements for her marriage) and desire, and who is in this instance destroyed, which for the composer is only right and proper. So therefore the opera Otello comes much closer to Bianca e Falliero. The differences that remain are the skin colour of the performer of the title rôle, and the different ending. To this extent, however, Shakespeare is certainly wrong. If you were to ask an Italian today what he understands by the term The Moor of Venice the answer would be: a member of the Venetian Moro family. And a good thing, too. The archetype for the English dramatist was admittedly definitely modelled on a “Moor” from Venice; however this Moor from Venice is not the Moor of Venice but a member of the Moro family from Venice and consequently clearly a white man. Cristoforo Moro was appointed Governor of Cyprus in 1505. His second wife had the nickname “white demon” (Desdemona). So when the singer of Othello at the Venetian first performance in 1818 refused to let himself be “blacked up” for the rôle, he was—probably knowingly—closer to the original story than all the stage realizations that followed.
 The scene is the great hall of a palace in Venice. In the background can be seen the sea and ships, while on the shore people await the return of Othello, victorious over the Turks. He lands, followed by Jago and Rodrigo, and approaches the Doge, to the sound of martial music.
 Othello announces his victory and the rescue of Cyprus. The Doge asks how Othello may be rewarded, and he replies that acceptance by Venice is enough. Jago and Rodrigo both comment unfavourably on this request. The Doge accepts Othello as one of their own, a citizen of Venice, a decision that alarms Rodrigo, the son of the Doge, who is encouraged in his hopes by Jago.
 Othello is grateful, but aside expresses hope for love, to the anger of Rodrigo, held back by Jago. The senators and people urge Othello to celebrate his victory.
 Rodrigo seeks news from Desdemona’s father, Elmiro, as to the state of her feelings, but Elmiro cannot give him any reassurance. Jago, who has heard their exchange, urges restraint, for the moment; he has a letter which can harm Othello’s cruel pride. Rodrigo is divided between hope, disdain and fear.
 Jago tells Rodrigo not to fear, and the latter agrees to conspire together with Jago to gain their ends.
 The scene changes to a room in Elmiro’s palace. Emilia comforts her mistress, Desdemona, who has been anxious for the safety of Othello. She is troubled, however, by her father’s increasing hatred of Othello and his suspicion of her love for him; Elmiro had intercepted a letter and a lock of her hair, sent to Othello, but supposed by Elmiro to have been intended for Rodrigo, a misapprehension that she had encouraged. Since then Desdemona has had no message from Othello.
 Emilia does her best to quieten Desdemona’s apprehensions.
 Desdemona sees the treacherous Jago approaching and leaves, in case he may detect her feelings from her face. Jago, however, once spurned by Desdemona, vows revenge, through the secret pledges of love that he has acquired. He is joined by Rodrigo and then by Elmiro, who offers Rodrigo the hand of Desdemona in marriage, allying himself with him in their enmity to Othello, with Rodrigo’s father enrolled also in their cause. Rodrigo is delighted, Elmiro intent on revenge against the barbarian, and Desdemona, who now enters, promised happiness by her father. Elmiro goes and Emilia enters, suggesting to Desdemona that her father has perhaps been won over by the glory of Othello’s victories.
 The scene is a hall, splendidly decorated. Maids of honour and friends of Elmiro celebrate the marriage to come. Elmiro, Desdemona, Emilia and Rodrigo come in, with their followers, and Elmiro bids his daughter swear eternal faith to Rodrigo.
 Elmiro tells Desdemona to rely on the heart of a loving father, but she hesitates, to the alarm of Elmiro and Rodrigo.
 Rodrigo declares his love, Elmiro urges her to trust him and Desdemona is distraught, true in her soul to Othello. Othello bursts in, accompanied by his followers, and accusing Desdemona of infidelity.
 Elmiro asks Othello what he wants, and Othello demands Desdemona’s love. In reply to Rodrigo he claims Desdemona’s sworn loyalty to him. Elmiro curses her, to the horror of the bystanders.
 Elmiro leads his daughter away, while Rodrigo threatens Othello, and the company deplore the workings of fate.
 The scene is a garden. Desdemona tells Rodrigo to leave her alone, while the latter tells her of his love for her. She admits that she is married to Othello.
 Rodrigo is horrified and pleads further his love for Desdemona, threatening revenge on Othello.
 Desdemona tells Emilia of her disclosure to Rodrigo and seeks her advice on how she may be with Othello. Emilia, left alone, resolves to warn Desdemona’s friends of the fatal course on which she has embarked.
 Othello questions the wisdom of his own actions, sacrificing his glory and honour, but still without Desdemona, although she had sworn fidelity to him. He is joined by Jago, who at first feigns reluctance, but eventually hands Othello the supposedly incriminating letter, a love-letter from Desdemona.
 Othello believes that he has been betrayed by Desdemona, while Jago, in an aside, is delighted at the jealousy he has caused. Othello reads the letter, in fact written to him but intercepted by his enemy, and Jago further inflames his jealousy by producing the lock of hair, supposedly sent to Rodrigo. Othello is now set on revenge, on the death of Desdemona and his own death.
 Rodrigo approaches Othello, offering himself either as enemy or as friend and defender. Othello rejects the latter offer, bestowing on Rodrigo only his contempt.
 The two men confront each other, their violence interrupted by the arrival of Desdemona, apparently unfaithful to each.
 She bewails his unkindness to her. but Othello tells her to be gone, to her increasing anguish. The two men leave, determined to fight a duel, leaving Desdemona desolate and fainting.
 Emilia joins her, trying to help her in her distress, and Desdemona gradually comes to herself once more.
 Desdemona is in desperation, about to lose the man she loves, the one for whom she would give her life. Desdemona’s women and friends can offer her no help, and Elmiro enters, repeating his condemnation of his daughter.
 The scene changes to a bedchamber in Elmiro’s house. Desdemona lies on a couch, immersed in grief and attended by Emilia, who does not know what to do. Desdemona can find no comfort, hated by Heaven, by her father and by herself.
 A distant gondolier is heard, repeating the words with which Dante described Paolo and Francesca: there is no greater sorrow than to recall past happiness in misery. The words remind Desdemona of her own cruel fate, and she goes to the window. Emilia tells her that it is a gondolier, singing as he makes his way, a man, Desdemona thinks, who is happy, returning home to those who love him. Desdemona calls on Isaura, a friend from Africa, now dead, and takes up her harp.
 She sings the willow song, how Isaura lay wounded by love at the foot of a willow, her sorrows echoed by the branches and clear streams, seeking shade for her sad grave.
 Desdemona turns to Emilia, as a gust of wind breaks some panes of glass in the window, seeing in this an omen. She continues the song of how the girl died by the willow, tired of tears and weeping. Emilia goes and Desdemona seeks peace in sleep. Drawing the curtains, she lies on the bed.
 Othello makes his secret appearance, as guided by Jago, carrying a lamp and a dagger. He thinks that no doubt Desdemona dreams of her lover, who now lies dead. He draws near the bed and opens the bed-curtains, seeing Desdemona, unequalled in beauty, but faithless and repelled by him. He hesitates by the bed, finally putting out the light of the lamp he carries, seeking the cover of night to conceal the horror of this unlucky day. Desdemona stirs, addressing her beloved in her sleep. A flash of lightning shows her asleep. There is a clap of thunder, with lightning. Desdemona wakes and sees Othello, who accuses her of falsity. She pleads her innocence, protesting that her only fault has been to love him.
 Desdemona tells him to strike, but first Othello tells her that her supposed lover, Rodrigo, is dead, killed by Jago. She exclaims on the falsehood of Jago, but Othello is determined to kill her. The thunder abates, but lightning continues. With his dagger Othello strikes Desdemona, as knocking is heard at the door. Lucio enters with news that Rodrigo is safe, but Jago dead. Jago, as he died, had revealed the plot. The Doge, Elmiro and Rodrigo enter, offering pardon, now that Jago’s guilt has been brought to light. Elmiro will give him the hand of his daughter in marriage. Othello stabs himself, ready to join Desdemona in death.
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