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Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, November 2010

Most people know Rossini by his comic opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia premiered in 1816 and never out of the repertoire throughout its life to the present day. Despite being the most famous opera composer of his times the same cannot be said of the other of his thirty-eight operatic compositions. This is particularly so in respect of his serious operas (opera seria) and non-more so than those he composed during his time as music director of the Royal Theatres of Naples, a coveted post. Changing fashions that followed the emergence of first Verdi, then Puccini and the verismo composers, contributed to this. Also important were the consequential changes in the character of voices that came into being to sing these latter works. This in turn led to the decline, until the last twenty or so years, of lighter more flexibly-voiced singers able to cope with the demands of the florid music involved. It is necessary to be aware of some of the background to the Naples opera seria such as Otello fully to appreciate its revolutionary qualities.

Otello was Rossini’s nineteenth opera and the second of the nine opera seria composed for the Royal Theatres of Naples. These came about as a result of the recognition by Barbaja, the powerful impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples, of Rossini’s pre-eminence among his contemporaries. Barbaja summoned Rossini to Naples and offered him the musical directorship of the Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. The proposal appealed to Rossini for several reasons. First, his annual fee was generous and guaranteed. Secondly, and equally important, unlike Rome and Venice, Naples had a professional orchestra. Rossini saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of his opera composition into more adventurous directions. Under the terms of the contract, Rossini was to provide two operas each year for Naples whilst being permitted to compose occasional works for other cities. The composer tended to push the limits of this contract in this latter respect and in its first two years he composed no fewer than five operas for other venues, with Il Barbiere di Siviglia being among four for Rome

In his first Naples opera seria, Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra, premiered to great enthusiasm on 4 December 1815, Rossini made imaginative use of professional musicians and with several innovations. For the first time he dispensed with unaccompanied recitative and which added dramatic vigour. He also, for the first time wrote out in full the embellishments he expected from his singers, thus avoiding their choosing to show off their vocal prowess to the detriment of the drama. In Otello Desdemona is introduced via a duet with Emelia (CD 1 trs.7–8) rather than the traditional entrance aria. Other innovations occur throughout the nine Naples opera seria composed during his seven-year stay.

Rossini went to Rome after the success of Elisabetta presenting Torvaldo e Dorliska at the Teatro Valle (26 December 1815), and after a hectic period finding a libretto, Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Teatro de Torre Argentina. On his return to Naples he found the San Carlo had been destroyed by fire. He composed his only Naples opera buffa, La Gazetta, premiered at the small Teatro de Fiorentina on 26 September 1816. This premiere had been postponed because Rossini was indulging his social life to the full, as was his wont. Perhaps the soprano Isabella Colbran, then the mistress of Barbaja, and later Rossini’s wife, was also distracting him. Certainly Barbaja was getting tetchy with the delays in the completion of the scheduled Otello. He wrote to the administrator of the Royal Theatres about Rossini’s dilatoriness in providing the finished work whilst being active with his social engagements. Otello should have been premiered on 10 October. It was first postponed for a month before being eventually staged on 4 December. As the San Carlo was not yet rebuilt it was staged at the smaller Royal Theatre, the Teatro del Fondo.

Rossini’s choice of Otello with its tragic ending was distinctly adventurous. Critics of the libretto assumed it to be based directly on the Shakespeare’s play. However, around the late 1970s evidence was presented to the Centre for Rossini Studies that the source of di Salsa’s libretto was more likely to have been the play Otello by Baron Carlo Cozena staged in Naples in 1813. What is certain is that only in the third act of Rossini’s Otello is there much relationship with Shakespeare’s play. That act certainly elicited the composer’s most inspired music with a richly scored introductory prelude and the interpolation of The Gondoliers Song (CD 2 tr.12), a brilliant inspiration and creation. The act also features the only duet for Otello and Desdemona (CD 2 tr.15). It is set against a growing storm, a typical Rossinian feature, as the mood moves towards the work’s dramatic climax. The greatness and sophistication of Rossini’s music in the third act often blinds critics to the virtues of that in the first two where the story diverts so much from Shakespeare.

In di Salsa’s libretto Desdemona is secretly pledged to Otello who has been greeted by the Doge and lauded after his victory over the Turks in Cyprus. The Doge’s son, Rodrigo, together with Iago, plots against Otello. Desdemona’s father Elmiro arranges her marriage to Rodrigo but Otello halts this and a fight ensues. Iago shows Otello a letter of affection from Desdemona purporting that it was written to Rodrigo although it was intended for him. This fuels Otello’s doubts, which lead to the conclusion of the third act.

Once Rossini was cajoled from the cuisine of Naples and whatever other extra-mural activities were filling his time, he composed with speed and felicity. Despite its bloody and tragic ending the opera was enthusiastically received by press and public alike. Despite the demand for six tenors, including three outstanding coloratura tenors, Otello initially spread throughout the Italian peninsula in its original form. Of particular note is the confrontation between Otello and Rodrigo in act 2 (CD 2 Trs.7–8) where visceral high Cs from both singers are required (p179. Rossini. Richard Osborne. Master Musicians Series. Dent 1987). For a production during Rome’s carnival in the season of 1819–20 Rossini provided an incongruous happy ending (lieto fine).

I was particularly interested to hear how Jessica Pratt as Desdemona measured up to Rossini’s vocal demands in her Willow Song (CD 2 Trs 13–14) having been impressed by her in the eponymous role in the British premiere of Rossini’s Armida at Garsington in 2010. As there, she could articulate the words better, but she sings the role with consummate musicality, strength of voice and tonal beauty. She does have the tendency to give stress to the emotions of the character by a swell on the note and could perhaps learn from the likes of Fleming and Caballé who are softer in attack but equally dramatic. In the eponymous role here Michael Spyres has the baritonal hue that Rossini accommodated for the renowned Giovanni David whilst not quite having the freedom at the top of the voice that is attributed to that famous predecessor. In the role of Rodrigo, created by Nozarri, the Naples coloratura tenor par excellence, Filippo Adami copes amazingly well (CD 2 Tr.6) and, if he is careful, he could have a good career in this increasingly staged repertoire. Ugo Guagliardo, born in Palermo, is excellent as Elmiro whilst French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet is expressive and nicely contrasted tonally with Jessica Pratt in the duets between Emilia and her mistress (CD 1 Trs.7–8 and CD 2 Tr.11).

The Naxos booklet has artist profiles and a good track-related synopsis. There is a libretto, in Italian at the Naxos website. The booklet essay has self-conflicting incongruities (p.5) as to the decline of Rossini’s Otello and the influence of Verdi’s opera. The acoustic is warm whilst the applause is polite and not unduly intrusive.

James A. Altena
Fanfare, September 2010

Rossini’s Otello was premiered on December 4, 1816, and remained one of his most frequently performed operas until the general eclipse of most of his works in the late 19th century. Changes in aesthetic style (the replacement of bel canto first by Verdian romantic drama and then verismo) had practical performance implications. Like Armida, Otello also has six tenor roles—three leads and three comprimario parts. The title role is written for a baritenore, a tenor with a lower tessitura but still requiring the top notes, while Rodrigo is cast for a high coloratura tenor, and Iago halfway in between. As voice types and vocal technique changed with compositional styles, finding singers with the requisite differentiated types of tenor voices probably became increasingly difficult, and without those contrasts the concentration of so many voices in one register sounds monotonous. Also, in accordance with the practices of the era that later fell into disfavor, the libretto departs significantly from Shakespeare [It is, in fact, based on a different source - Ed.]. It replaces the famous handkerchief with the standard plot device of intercepted letters, and portrays Desdemona as torn between love for Otello (whom she has married in secret) and filial obedience to her father’s wish that she marry Rodrigo, who as Otello’s open rival is a far more prominent character here than Iago. It is only with the great Rossini revival in recent decades that truly vital performances of such works have again become possible.

The present performance emanates from a Rossini festival in southwestern Germany, near Karlsruhe. While not ideal, this newly issued live performance immediately leaps to the fore as one of two preferred recordings of this Rossini rarity...Its greatest strength is tenor Michael Spyres in the title role, the finest rendition yet committed to disc. His voice is simply spectacular...he fearlessly encompasses a two-octave-plus range with the requisite virile heft, fluency in coloratura, and interpretive commitment...Giorgio Trucco as Iago has a light voice...but is effective in act II...The Rodrigo of Filippo Adami is...Very light and bright in timbre...The strengths extend to the rest of the cast as well...Jessica Pratt as pleasing in timbre and technically assured, and she brings an interpretive commitment notably lacking in some rivals. Ugo Guagliardo as her father, Elmiro, and Geraldine Chauvet as Emilia both sing their smaller but crucial supporting roles with security and authority, and the comprimario parts are all ably filled. The chorus...sings quite well. The orchestra is on the smallish side...but it plays with spirit and fine ensemble. Conductor Antonino Fogliani has the full measure of the music, with brisk, energetic allegros, lyrical, flowing andantes, and just the right hint of rubato at appropriate junctures. The recorded acoustic is warm, with a touch of reverberance. In keeping with current Naxos practice, the libretto is available online rather than printed and included with the set...Naxos has a winner here; this issue is strongly recommended.

Michael Mark
American Record Guide, September 2010

This is “the other” Otello (not based on Shakespeare)...Otello is the least florid of the three leading tenor roles and requires sometimes some baritonal heft. Spyres has it—and is the best member of the cast. He has some passion and manages the music well. Chorus and orchestra are good...and Mr Fogliani leads with a sure, steady hand.

By the way, knowledgeable Rossinians should recognize an example of Rossini’s borrowing in the overture: part of the Turco in Italia overture. Libretto in Italian on the Naxos website, but the booklet contains an essay and a synopsis.

William R. Braun
Opera News, September 2010

When Rossini’s Otello got the glamorous studio treatment in 1978 (with Frederica von Stade, José Carreras and Samuel Ramey all in plush, youthful voice), it had just begun its return to the repertoire. New Yorkers had started to know it through the Town Hall performances of the American Opera Society in the 1950s—one with Jennie Tourel as Desdemona and one with Eileen Farrell. Later, Otello was given the full-bore Opera Rara treatment on CD, with scholarly attention and a specialist cast and conductor. It seemed unlikely that another version would have much more to tell us about the opera. But this new recording, perhaps because it is taken from live staged performances—and definitely because of Antonino Fogliani’s conducting—adds to our understanding.

This Otello is particularly notable for Fogliani’s treatment of the recitatives, which gives the illusion that the opera is conducting itself. Fogliani has a real understanding of the way Rossini often sets up a specific mood with very limited means, sometimes not much more than the timbre of the horn and some midrange strings. The start of Act III has all the elements that should be present—foreboding, a majesty that befits an aristocratic heroine, solemnity—but that not all conductors are able to produce. The introduction to each of the three scenes in the long first act has its own specificity, like that of a radio play. And fast music is always quick and exciting but completely under control. Fogliani also makes the Emilia–Desdemona duet in Act I (Desdemona is introduced in duet, not aria) seem a more substantial piece than it ever has.

The title role (like the role of Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito) is one of those vocal oddities that are difficult to cast. Otello has a written high D (as does Vitellia), but much of the substance of the role lies in the low register. Michael Spyres is effective dramatically and vocally in the part, offering refined singing in the Act I finale and dark colorings elsewhere. (As in Verdi’s Otello, there’s a duet in A major for Otello and Iago over pulsing triplets.) Desdemona is frequently cast with a mezzo-soprano because the willow song, the one famous part of the score, is in the low range. But this is an Isabella Colbran role, like Rossini’s Armida and Semiramide, and it’s meant for a higher voice. There’s something much more troubling and effective about the willow song when it sits a bit low, a bit less easily, for a soprano...but this is nonetheless a real bel canto performance. Desdemona has to be able to characterize a line of a single syllable—“Oh!”—and show us the subtext of a simple line such as “Oh sposo,” and Pratt delivers.

The singers in the other roles are fine but not on this level. The other large role is that of Rodrigo, a more brilliant tenor role than Otello. (He takes the upper line when they sing together.) Rodrigo gets the one conventional aria in the score, complete with a bustling clarinet obbligato, half Mozart’s “Parto, parto” and half Carl Maria von Weber...Iago, yet another tenor, is sung by Giorgio Trucco...he raises his game when he is paired in duet with Spyres. In the fourth tenor part, the offstage gondolier who adds such atmosphere to Desdemona’s big scene, Leonardo Cortellazzi catches the mood perfectly...The performance, taken from the Rossini in Wildbad festival of 2008, is billed as using a “new revised edition after the autograph and contemporary manuscripts by Florian Bauer”...We do get the complete original horn solo in the second scene, a notoriously treacherous undertaking that wasn’t ventured even as recently as the 1978 López-Cobos recording. Pratt has evidently studied some of the many published variants for the willow song, but she doesn’t smother Rossini’s perfectly lovely original lines at every possible moment. It’s all in keeping with the premise of this enterprise, that Otello is an effective work that needs no special pleading. This close identification with the text makes it all the more frightening when Rossini and Fogliani whip up a real storm in Act III.

Richard Osborne
Gramophone, August 2010

There is one reason for acquiring this new recording of Rossini’s Otello and that is the chance it offers to hear on record the young English soprano Jessica Pratt. Trained in Sydney and in Rome, she has been much sought-after these last three years in soprano roles of the Italian ottocento, of which Rossini’s Desdemona is one of the earliest and most richly imagined. In June she sang the ferociously difficult title-role in Rossini’s Armida at Garsington, the opera’s British stage premiere.

The 1978 Philips recording of Otello has Frederica von Stade as Desdemona with a strong cast which includes José Carreras as Otello, Gianfranco Pastine as Iago and Salvatore Fisichella as Rodrigo. Pratt is every bit as fine as von Stade, the voice free, flexible and finely schooled, her engagement with the role fairly complete, both in the high drama of Act 2 where the opera finally embraces tragedy and in the Willow Song, Prayer and death scene in the superb third act.

As a singer, Pratt is in a different league from most of the Wildbad cast, though happily there is a passable Otello, Michael Spyres, and a sympathetic Emilia, Geraldine Chauvet, so the final act is persuasively done.

Robert Levine, May 2010

The opera itself is an acquired taste. Those who demand any sort of fidelity to Shakespeare will be horrified by the differences in the plot (Rossini used a different source), and loyalty to Verdi’s masterpiece will tend to get in the way. Here, Otello seems like a sort-of bit player in his own opera (he rarely makes us feel anything for him and we never get to see him and Desdemona as a happy couple), Iago has no true aria, and Rodrigo winds up being a combination of himself and Cassio—the character with the most to sing.

But Rossini is always worth hearing, and there is some gorgeous music. The entire third act is justly admired; it somehow awakened both composer and librettist to a sense of true tragedy. An offstage Gondolier’s Song sets a mood of great foreboding and sadness; Desdemona’s Willow Song and Prayer can rival Verdi’s for both beauty and atmosphere (and you must hear Montserrat Caballé sing it on her “Rossini Rarities” CD); and Otello’s uncertainty before he finally kills his bride is fraught with drama and pathos.

Earlier there is some fine music as well: an energetic duet for Iago and Rodrigo, and a gentle, simple duet for Emilia and Desdemona in Act 1; the whole Act 1 finale, particularly the introspective section for Desdemona, Otello, and Emilio (her father), “Ti parli l’amore”, and the busy quintet that follows; Rodrigo’s second-act volley of coloratura and high notes (“Che ascolto?”); a duet for Otello and Iago; and the chugging finale to the second act. And when the tenors are dueling with high-Ds, it is irresistibly showtime.

Well, what to do with this performance? Jessica Pratt’s Desdemona is lovely and fragile, though she is capable of fine outrage; she interpolates high notes every so often and they are in good taste. Michael Spyres has both the baritonal bottom notes and the more high-flying ones for the title role; you can sense how difficult the role is, however and that takes some of the nobility from the character. Filippo Adami’s Rodrigo...sings fearlessly and very expressively in the cruelly high tessitura...Giorgo Trucco’s Iago is nicely sneering and he gets through the music with passion. And Ugo Guagliardo’s bass Emilio is terrific—this is an important role here, and moreover, since he has the opera’s only dark voice it must impress. The rest of the cast offers a sense of occasion, and the “live” sound (this was recorded at performances in Germany in July, 2008) is quite good. Antonino Fogliani leads a very exciting performance and the orchestra and chorus work very hard. No libretto is included, but a track-by-track synopsis is clear; an Italian-only libretto is available online.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2010

Rossini’s version of the Otello story is very different to that used in Verdi’s opera, and though well thought of at the time, it has now largely dropped from the repertoire. In time scale it falls between Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, with the need to compose quickly being evident in the reworking of a previous overture that has little relevance with the ensuing drama. In fact there is hardly anything left of the Shakespeare play apart from the character names, this plot going through a series of archetypal Italian opera scenes. [Berio di Salsa’s libretto is actually based on the French play Othello or the Moor of Venice by Jean-François Ducis rather than that of Shakespeare – Ed.] It equally misses out on Verdi’s contrasting voices between Otello, Rodrigo and Iago, all three here given to tenors, the musically sinister aspects of Iago rather lost. It also calls for a lyric tenor who can go into the outer stratospheres in the part of Rodrigo, Filippo Adami meeting the vocal acrobatics with vigour and bringing suitable excitement to the first act duet with Desdemona, Nel cor d’un padre amante—in this story Desdemona is promised to Rodrigo by her father. Though Otello and Iago become more involved as the plot unfolds, it is Rodrigo who carries much of the male solo vocal part, his extended showpiece aria at the opening of act 2, Che ascolto? ahime, che dici, being one of the opera’s highlights. Indeed it is not until we are well into the second act that Rossini stokes up the drama Verdi achieves in his opera’s opening storm scene. There is in the final act Desdemona obligatory Willow Song before an ending much different to Verdi. In the third act Otello at last has music of substance, the American-born Michael Spyres makes an imposing character in the scene with Jessica Pratt as a steely Desdemona. There are reliable performances from Giorgio Trucco as Iago and Ugo Guagliardo as Desdemona’s father. Virtuosi Brunensis, conducted by Antonio Fogliani, provides a vivid orchestral backdrop, and the recording taken from the stage in the ‘Rossini in Wildbad Festival 2008’ has few stage noises while balance between orchestra and singers is realistic. An inexpensive way to explore a rarity.

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