Notes and Editorial Reviews
Antonino Fogliani, cond; Michael Spyres (
); Jessica Pratt (
); Giorgio Trucco (
); Filippo Adami (
); Geraldine Chauvet (
); Ugo Guagliardo (
); Transylvania St Phil Ch, Cluj; Virtuoso Brunensis
NAXOS 8.660275-76 (2 CDs: 148:30) Live: Bad Wildbad 7/12–19/2008
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
first by Verdian romantic drama and then
) had practical performance implications. Like
also has six tenor roles—three leads and three
parts. The title role is written for a
, 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 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 only real competition is the Opera Rara set with Bruce Ford, Juan José Lopera, William Matteuzzi, and Elizabeth Futral, reviewed in
23:5 by Joel Kasow. Its greatest strength is tenor Michael Spyres in the title role, the finest rendition yet committed to disc. His voice is simply spectacular; technically more secure even than Ford, he fearlessly encompasses a two-octave-plus range with the requisite virile heft, fluency in coloratura, and interpretive commitment. Less than ideal, though not bad, are the other two principal tenors. Giorgio Trucco as Iago has a light voice, somewhat lacking in sheen and a bit on the nasal side; he takes most of act I to warm up, but is effective in act II, and I find him preferable to Lopera. The Rodrigo of Filippo Adami is more problematic. Very light and bright in timbre, it is excessively nasal and has a wobble in the sustained top notes; it is difficult to hear him as a formidable rival to Otello for the hand of Desdemona, one that would have won her father’s favor. However, his coloratura and vocal production are superior to those of Matteuzzi, and again he seems a slightly preferable choice.
The strengths extend to the rest of the cast as well. While not flawless, Jessica Pratt as Desdemona is as good as or better than Futral or any of the alternatives. Initially her voice is slightly harsh and has a few slightly squally notes at the top, but once she gets warmed up for the act I finale it is 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 has a name redolent of satirical spoofs of provincial opera companies and pseudonymous recordings issued on obscure labels from the 1950s, but in fact it sings quite well. The orchestra is on the smallish side—the Philharmonia on Opera Rara has more punch—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.
While this version is now the best sung, the Opera Rara set is the preferred edition for completists, as it includes alternative arias and both endings written for the opera (due to resistance from both censors and audiences, a happy dénouement also was penned to replace the original tragic one recorded here). Kasow’s review of its virtues and flaws is dead on target, and I need add nothing to that. In 25:1 Henry Fogel reviewed the Dynamic set of the “Malibran” edition of the opera, in which the role of Otello is transposed to a mezzo-soprano trouser part. It is also on three discs and offers both endings, though cuts are made in the original tragic one. I similarly agree with his overall negative assessment; if anything, he is too kind to certain singers. The pioneering Philips recording is available in a reissue edition with libretto from ArkivMusic; despite a starry vocal line-up (Frederica von Stade, José Carreras, Salvatore Fisichelli, and Samuel Ramey), I agree with the critical consensus that it is a staid affair, stylistically inadequate in its singing (significantly excepting Fisichelli’s Rodrigo) and hobbled by the soporific conducting of Jesús López-Cobos. Naxos has a winner here; this issue is strongly recommended.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Otello was the second
opera seria which Rossini wrote for Naples. As such, it was written for the star team of Isabella Colbran, Andrea Nozzari, Giovanni David and Giuseppe Ciccimara. It was designed to take advantage of these voices, providing spectacular music in the context of an early 19
opera seria. The plot owes little to Shakespeare and the immediate source of Berio's libretto was a more recent adaptation of the story.
For its first two acts,
Otello explores themes common to Italian opera of the time; forbidden love, the conflict of duty and desire, an innocent woman being forced to choose between her lover and her father. Elements of the familiar plot are thrown together and re-cast into something entirely different; if the characters had been given other names then we'd hardly associate the opera with Shakespeare's play. But in act 3, Rossini and his librettist return to something like Shakespeare to create a magical and daring conclusion.
The opera has done rather well on disc. Jésus López-Cobos directed a 1978 recording with Jose Carreras and Frederica von Stade. Then in 2000 came Opera Rara's recording with Bruce Ford and Elizabeth Futral conducted by David Parry. Now we have this live recording in Naxos's continuing series from the Rossini in Wildbad festival.
But before we consider the recording, we need to pause and look at what Rossini was doing with his vocal writing. His use of the team of tenors in Naples has caused problems during revivals in the 20
th century. Colbran was a soprano, though her voice was starting to fade and Rossini's roles for her veer towards mezzo-soprano territory. The three principal tenors had contrasting voices. Giovanni David, who sang Rodrigo, had a high (very high) lyric voice with a great facility for passage-work, a real coloratura voice. Nozzari sang Otello and he had a lower, darker voice; but not that dark, as Rossini's writing shows. Nozzari still possessed some facility with high passage-work, Then finally Ciccimara, who sang Jago and whose voice did have a distinctly baritonal quality.
It is this difference in voice types which is important as Rossini uses it for contrast. The problem is that in a modern day performance, we are lucky if we can find anyone at all to sing these tricky parts and we cannot always get too fussy about fine differentiations of voice-type.
This is a live recording of a staged performance. Those people actually present would have had the immense good fortune to be able to see as well as hear the performers. For those listening to the disc at home, there are problems: the three leading tenors are not that dissimilar in voice-type and in the absence of a libretto, the listener sometimes has to work hard to tell who is whom.
Michael Spyres, who sings Otello, is entirely admirable in the role. His tone has the requisite darkness which the role requires. On the Opera Rara disc Bruce Ford is rather light of voice and it is Jose Carreras on the 1978 recording who comes over as ideal. Spyres does not quite have the flexibility demanded by the role, but he does a pretty damn good job. Unfortunately the role of Otello is rather under-written and it is Rodrigo who is the more important tenor. Here, we find Filippo Adami singing the role with the sort of attack and swagger that you would have expected for the title role. His approach is a bit rough and ready at times, but was probably bravura enough to have worked live. Unfortunately his tone is not noticeably lighter than Spyres’. This means that in their act 2 duet, particularly in the
anything you can do I can do better section, the two voices lack the thrilling contrast. On the 1978 disc, Carreras and his Rodrigo are admirably contrasted and Carreras uses his heavier voice to thrilling effect.
Jessica Pratt, who has been singing Rossini's Armida at Garsington this summer (2010), makes an entirely admirable Desdemona. No-one can quite touch Montserrat Caballé in her recording of the Willow Song from Act 3, but I think I could live with Pratt. Her voice turns a bit wayward under pressure at times, but then this is a live recording. More worrying is her quite substantial vibrato, something which I had to get used to.
Giorgio Trucco makes a solid Jago, balancing Spyres well in their act 2 duet, but rather lacking in any feeling for the sly, insinuating character that we know from the play. Ugo Guagliardo is the principal bass voice in the piece, playing Elmiro, Desdemona's father. He has a nice focused voice, one that could have been made more fully exploited.
Under Antonino Fogliani's direction, the piece goes off with quite some zing especially in the set-pieces. There were however moments when I felt that the recitatives plodded somewhat. The orchestra, the Virtuosi Brunensis, is a chamber orchestra from Brno and they deliver a crisp and lively account with some really lovely solo playing. The choir, as is often the case in recordings of staged works, suffer from moments of instability of ensemble.
Naxos include a detailed summary in the CD booklet but no libretto.
Both the Opera Rara and the 1978 recordings use the Fondazione Edition of the work. This recording uses a new edition by Florian Bauer, but I can't see edition being a decider.
Opera Rara include various extra pieces in an appendix, including an entrance aria for Desdemona and the happy ending written for Rome. Both of these re-use pre-existing material. All very fascinating but you have to pay for three discs. Opera Rara seen to have taken a light, small-scale view of the work, and David Parry's direction is adequate rather than thrilling.
It is the 1978 Philips recording which remains my ideal. López-Cobos paces the work admirably and his cast are both stylish Rossinians and admirably contrasted. If you possibly can, acquire this recording.
But if you are curious about Rossini's version of
Otello then you will not go far wrong with this new Naxos version.
-- Robert Hugill, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Otello by Gioachino Rossini
Sean Spyres (Tenor),
Leonardo Cortellazzi (Tenor),
Hugo Colin (Tenor),
Giorgio Trucco (Tenor),
Geraldine Chauvet (Mezzo Soprano),
Ugo Guagliardo (Bass),
Filippo Adami (Tenor),
Jessica Pratt (Soprano),
Michael Spyres (Tenor)
Transylvania State Philharmonic Chorus,
Written: 1816; Italy
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