Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Cecilia Bartoli makes her long-anticipated debut in the role of Desdemona in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s new production of Rossini’s Otello for the Zurich Opera House.
“Ms. Bartoli...displayed...the dazzling strengths that have characterized her work since the beginning. It is obvious that she has plotted out every musical and dramatic moment: every subtle diminuendo, every gesture. But her charm — those twinkling eyes, those powerful low notes — is such that the effect doesn’t feel
overly calculated.” – The New York Times
Rossini’s unusual scoring of the drama calls for three tenor supporting roles – here sung to universal acclaim by long-standing Bartoli collaborators John Osborn and Javier Camarena and newcomer Edgardo Rocha. Bartoli’s dramatic command and vocal presence dominate the stage and reveal her artistry to be entering a rich new stage of development.
“Ms. Bartoli...displayed...the dazzling strengths that have characterized her work since the beginning. It is obvious that she has plotted out every musical and dramatic moment: every subtle diminuendo, every gesture. But her charm — those twinkling eyes, those powerful low notes — is such that the effect doesn’t feel overly calculated.” – The New York Times
“Zurich Opera stared down the mighty challenge posed by Rossini’s Otello ossia il moro di Venezia, and knocked it out of the ballpark.” – Operatoday.com
Muhai Tang, cond; John Osborn (
); Cecilia Bartoli (
); Liliana Nikiteanu (
); Javier Camarena (
); Edgardo Rocha (
); Peter Kálmán (
); O La Scintilla, Zurich Opera Ch
DECCA 074 3865 (Blu-ray: 156:00) Live: Zurich 3/2012
premiered in 1887, it drove a stake through the heart of Rossini’s version from 1816, but the blow was post-mortem. After scoring a stunning success in Naples, Rossini’s harum-scarum melodrama—it bears no serious resemblance to Shakespeare’s play—went on to set the template for Romantic tragedy on the Italian opera stage. By mid-century, however, it had been overtaken by musical styles less beholden to outmoded
conventions and had entered terminal wheeziness.
For more than a century this was the verdict, but as everyone knows, the revival of
led by Maria Callas in the 1950s allowed for the rise of the charismatic mezzo Cecilia Bartoli. Where Callas added star power and visceral emotion to vehicles like
, Rossini is Bartoli’s chief cause and the source of her operatic fame. She’s a riveting tragic actress, as she amply demonstrates in this modern-dress
from Zurich (in her mature phase, Bartoli’s appearance is more a verismo Anna Magnani than sexy comedienne, which adds to the earthy effect she achieves vocally). For those of us who have never seen the opera before, it turns out that Bartoli isn’t here to grab the limelight. Not for a while, at least. Desdemona’s first aria doesn’t occur until the end of act II; it’s the 13th number in the opera.
Up until then, Rossini stages one of the most exciting tenor competitions imaginable. Thanks to an absurd deviation from Shakespeare’s plot, three rivals are in love with Desdemona: Otello, Iago, and Rodrigo (we’ll take a pause and roll our eyes). All three are tenors, and the spectacular singing required of them would ideally call for Juan Diego Flórez to be triplets. Rossini was only in his 20s when he found himself in charge of the opera house in Naples, and he tailored each role to a famous singer of the day. For Otello he relied on a voice that can span two and a half octaves, with strong low notes and an acrobatic upper range. For Rodrigo, who has the second biggest male role, he wrote for a lighter voice that could reach the stratosphere and stay there spinning out
like cotton candy. Iago’s part is less distinctive, but he also has much florid singing to do. (Rossini’s vocal resources in Naples were so extraordinary that he assigns an offstage gondolier’s song to yet a fourth tenor.)
The challenge to find three such tenors is great, but John Osborn (Otello), Javier Camarena (Rodrigo), and Edgardo Rocha (Iago) fit the bill. So by no means is this Bartoli’s show. We wait until act III for her grand scenes, where the plot gets back on track with Shakespeare and Boito. We get a Willow Song, Desdemona’s prayer, and the terrifying death scene. Bartoli is a feisty performer, and this works too, since this Desdomna is like a defiant Carmen facing her murderer. You almost believe she has a fighting chance until Otello stabs her with his sword. He doesn’t smother her, and by the way there’s no handkerchief.
As for the staging, why break the custom of ridiculing bizarre European productions? In this one, Otello hangs out in an army canteen with a Muslim drug dealer swigging beer and feeling sorry for himself. Desdemona pulls a lager for herself out of the fridge, and you need to turn away if you don’t want to see Bartoli empty the bottle over her head in the act II finale. Weak gestures are made toward condemning racism: There’s a black waiter who cowers after he spills a tray of drink on the floor, and in the closing seconds of the opera Rodrigo and Desdemona’s father take turns kicking Otello’s corpse. (It’s ungallant of me to mention this, but the fact that Osborn is the shortest man on stage seriously subtracts from Otello’s looming fierceness.)
The sets are minimal, no more than three walls and some furniture. The period orchestra is adept—it needs to be, since Rossini wrote for the famously fine pit orchestra in Naples, with special attention to colorful horn solos. Conductor Muhai Tang leads a spirited reading, although some of Rossini’s striking theatrical effects, such as the thunderstorm before Otello does the deed, are hampered by the thin sound of a small ensemble and noticeably zingy strings.
Thanks to exemplary camera work, exciting singing, a sure-fire last act, and Bartoli’s charisma, this is likely to stand as the best video
for a long while, despite the painful adjustment required to put Shakespeare and Verdi out of their misery.
FANFARE: Huntley Dent
Works on This Recording
Otello by Gioachino Rossini
Javier Camarena (Tenor),
Cecilia Bartoli (Mezzo Soprano),
Edgardo Rocha (Tenor),
John Osborn (Tenor)
Zurich La Scintilla Orchestra
Written: 1816; Italy
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