Gioachino Rossini - Otello
Buxton Festival, 2014
Stephen Barlow, Sara Fulgoni, Alessandro Luciano, Kate Ladner, Nicky Spence, Henry Waddington, Carolyn Dobbin, Leonel Pinheiro, Mikael Onelius, Andrew Brown
Buxton Opera House - 26 July 2014
I don't usually review concert performances of opera - the dramatic direction is as much a part of opera as the music and the singing - but a performance of Rossini's Otello is rare enough that that it's worth mentioning whenever it's presented. One of the principal reasons it's rarely performed is that it's hard to find singers good enough in this register, Otello notoriously requiring no less than five tenors in fairly challenging roles. Buxton get around this problem by using an alternative version of the opera that casts a mezzo-soprano instead of a tenor in the role of Otello. It's not so much getting around the problem as readjusting where the challenges lie, and you're still going to need four good tenors. All of which just increases the rarity value and interest in this performance.
A dramatic presentation of a work adapted from a Shakespeare play would, you think, be pretty much indispensable, but Rossini's Otello varies from Shakespeare's in a number of significant ways, not all of which will be satisfactory to the purist. The changes however are not arbitrary or ill-conceived, but are necessary to reduce the complexity and scale of the original play into a manageable music-drama format. To do that without losing the essence of the work is important, and while Rossini doesn't entirely succeed in some areas and can hardly be said to improve in any areas, in others the composer finds a successful medium, or at least one that has dramatic consistency.
The most controversial change in Rossini's version is of course the switching of Desdemona's handkerchief for a love letter. Written by Desdemona to Otello but never received by the latter, Iago convinces the Moor the letter that has come into his possession was intended for Rodrigo. This is much more tangible proof than a handkerchief, which means it doesn't take quite so much persuasion from Iago to convince Otello of her infidelity. It simplifies motivations certainly, but it's not just a shortcut, actually reducing the amount of chance and contrivance much that the drama relies on. Along with the suggestion that Iago's advances were once rebuffed by Desdemona, this also makes his motivations more credible than just evil ambition.
It's true however that the impulse to change certain aspects of the play derives more from Rossini need to adapt situation and characterisation to fit the structure of the number opera. With more long laments than action, Otello can also be seen to adhere more to the opera seria format, but Rossini respects the dramatic drive and innovates with accompanied recitative and interaction in duets between Otello and Rodrigo, Desdemona and Rodrigo, and - completing the triangle - between Desdemona and Otello. The placement of quintets, ensembles and choral pieces throughout the work all serve to create an even greater sense of the drama and situation.
A concert performance of the work just emphasises how dramatically effective Rossini's musical handling of the material is on it own terms. Or at least this one at Buxton did. It started off with the cast wearing formal evening dress and standing before music podiums, although Nicky Spence's Iago rakishly had his tie removed and shirt collar unbuttoned. By the end of the evening however, you'd have forgotten that this was a concert performance, all the singers seeming to have been caught up in the characterisation, the audience fully drawn into the drama by the escalating momentum of Rossini's arrangements.
It did however take a while to become accustomed to a mezzo-soprano in the role of Otello rather than Desdemona. It wasn't so much from a vocal standpoint however as a visual one and in male costume during a full production, it probably wouldn't have been an issue at all. Sara Fulgoni's powerful performance however made it easy to feel the extent of Otello's rage and the force of personality that would lead him to such drastic actions, and there was actually a discernible difference between the two female leads in the more feminine gowns worn by Kate Ladner. Ladner's performance was exceptionally good, devastating in her account of Desdemona's predicament, her Willow Song in particular deeply touching.
Buxton however managed to overcome the other singing challenges of this work such apparent ease that you'd almost wonder why all the fuss about putting on Rossini's Otello. Alessandro Luciano was certainly tested as Rodrigo, but came through it well, with clear bright enunciation and a strong dramatic tenor voice. Nicky Spence really impressed me with his Iago. This is a more dramatic role that requires a deeper and darker timbre than I've heard him sing in before, but he was thoroughly convincing and dramatically effective, singing the role with apparent ease. Under the fine direction of Stephen Barlow, the Northern Chamber Orchestra and the Buxton Festival Chorus were again simply outstanding, handling the intricacies of the work with an eye on the whole overarching structure and journey that Rossini's wonderful score thrillingly takes.