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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Pesaro Rossini Festival 2007,  Rossini ,   Otello: Soloists,   Orchestra Del Teatro Comunale Di Bologna   Conductor Renato Palumbo, Coro Da Camera Di Praga, Chorus Master, Lubomir Matl, 11 and 14. 8 2007 (NdV)
Sets: Carlo Centolavigna
Costumes: Maria Filippi
Lighting: Wolfgang Von Zoubek

Otello - Ferdinand Von Bothmer  August,11
Gregory Kunde  August,14
Desdemona-Olga Peretyatko
Rodrigo-Juan Diego Flórez
é Manuel Zapata 
Elmiro-Mirco Palazzi
Emilia-Maria Gortsevskaya
Doge-Aldo Bottion
Lucio-Enrico Iviglia

The Otello Set

If the swift downpour that hit Pesaro  moments before the Prima of G. Rossini's Otello on August 8th, seemed like a bad omen, that was nothing compared to the two major cast changes that might have weakened the foundation of the Rossini Opera Festival's new production  and washed it away entirely.

To start with, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who was slated to be ROF's Otello, cancelled at the beginning of the rehearsal period, so on July 1st, tenor Gregory Kunde was offered the role. Kunde accepted gladly, but  had never performed the role, and needed at least two weeks to learn it. Keeping that in mind, ROF then hired tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer, who had a small role in ROF's 2006 production of Mozart's Die Schuldgkeit Des Ersten Gebots, as a cover for Kunde and also promised von Bothmer one performance on August 11th. Tenor, Chris Merritt, who had not appeared in Pesaro since he sang Otello there in 1991, was cast as Iago in this production. Now the cast included Kunde, Merritt and, as originally planned, Juan Diego
Flórez as Rodrigo. Flórez is known as the supreme Rossinian tenor these days and  with nine previous appearances at Pesaro under his belt, he is the object of an adoring public at the festival.

Gregory Kunde (Otello) and Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona)

As it turned out however, Merritt was in poor vocal shape on the 8th, and the next day, he was suddenly taken  ill and also had to cancel. The new Iago turned out to be Spanish tenor, José  Manuel Zapata. Whether the tenor had been a cover for the role or had just  flown in to replace Merritt was not revealed, but the result was that on the first night, the  cast announced was von Bothmer, Zapata and Flórez. If ever there was an opera performance fraught with apprehension as to its outcome, this had to be it.

Not surprisingly, the performance turned out to be a lopsided affair. Although Flórez was a superlative Rodrigo, and Olga Peretyatko's Desdemona was well-acted and beautifully sung, Zapata had a few hesitant vocal moments, but still offered a well-thought-out Iago. The disappointment came with von Bothmer's Otello; the role was beyond his vocal capabilities. Though  he really tried to bring a noble bearing to counteract Otello's jealous, anxious moments,  vocally he was thwarted at every attempt. The voice was too small for the role and lay in the back of the throat, so it was difficult for him to project  forward into the house. He had difficulty with the coloratura runs in Otello's opening aria and couldn't reach the few high C's that Rossini gave him. The way he held his composure throughout the evening  however was  admirable.

Gregory Kunde (Otello)  and Juan Diego Flórez (Rodrigo)

It was the performance on August 14th which really struck vocal gold. Kunde's reviews for his first Otello on the 8th only hinted at the dynamic, explosive performance he brought to the Adriatic Arena that evening. Kunde  had sung the role of Idreno in Semiramide in 2003 which proved to be rough sailing for the bel canto tenor, where he exhibited some ungainly coloratura passages. As Hugh Canning recalled in his Otello review of August 26, 2007, in the Sunday Times about that performance, " His (Kunde's) last appearances at the festival, four years ago, as Idreno..., were greeted by catcalls and booing, so it was brave and magnanimous of him to help Pesaro out of a fix." The fix, however, segued into a vocal tour de force for Kunde whose passionate interpretation of the Moor brimmed over with such vocal conviction that he not only dazzled the audience, but also seemed to astonish himself. Most likely, the reason for this great performance was that Kunde finally had the opportunity to sing a role he had surely coveted throughout his career and  did so  with extraordinary vocal and dramatic characterizations, in front of some of his severest critics. This Otello was surely the defining moment of his career.

Fortunately for the audience, vocal gold was found among  other singers too. Rossini and Francesco Berio di Salsa, his librettist, embellished the role of Rodrigo because the great late classic tenor, Giovanni David -  who was at their disposal in Naples in 1816 -  had no trouble with the high tessitura Rossini demanded. Nor, luckily for those in Pesaro, in August, 2007, ROF had Diego Flórez, whose voice  climbs the scale equally well. Flórez has been on the operatic stage for ten years now and his achievements in Rossinian tenor roles have been well-documented. At this point in his career, he can bring  every bit of  this experience to  a dynamic stage presence that easily translates into  precise dramatic intensity. This theatrical know-how was most evident in the portrayal of the rejected suitor in the first scene of Act II when Desdemona reveals that Otello is her husband. In fact,  Flórez, doubtless guided by  director Giancarlo Del Monaco, mapped out the technically-difficult aria into various emotional sections, so that it took on the feel of a short play. Starting with the recitative, "Che ascolto ! Ahime!" in which Rodrigo, stunned by Desdemona's declaration, bursts forth with disbelief into "Ah come mai non senti"  was sung with a growing anxiety each time Flórez bit into the piece, starting  from confusion, then lashing out in anger and finally registering inconsolable heartbreak. Vocally, his top notes were always bright and secure, but it was the many gruppetti and grace notes that he flew through that really set the audience on fire.

Maria Gortsevskaya (Emilia) and Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona)

As much as Flórez dominated the tenor roles on the 11th, the performance on the 14th proved to be the one that everyone wanted to hear. Zapata's Iago was on sturdier vocal ground than previously, allowing him to concentrate on Iago's malevolent side. In his duet with Otello in Act II, he used Del Monaco's idea of having Iago walk with a slight limp and in need of a cane, to emphasize the character's self-loathing. Maria Fillipi's dark green and leathery brown costumes created for Iago and his cohorts at court, plus the severe, almost caustic look of the makeup, pinpointed Otello and Iago's emotional friction. Kunde and Zapata brought both power and great musical drama to the scene where Iago shows Otello a billet-doux and a lock of Desdemona's hair, rather than the handkerchief used in Shakespeare's play, as evidence of her unfaithfulness with Rodrigo.

Kunde's Otello continued on his highly charged journey, first in the explosive duet with  Rodrigo, who challenges him to a duel and then in the trio which finds Desdemona trying, but failing, to stop the men from fighting. In the Act's last scene  Desdemona, overwhelmed by confusion and bewilderment, falls fainting to the ground and  as her confidant Emilia,  tries to revive her, Rossini introduces the scena with four long, lamenting chords, clearly lifted from the tragic ending of his Tancredi. These chords created a beautiful moment for Olga Peretyatko, a young soprano from St. Petersburg, Russia, to start her transparent and many-faceted rendition of Desdemona's plight.  Going from the wounding invective, "Barbaro ciel tiranno," to the pathos in her realization that her father, Elmiro has condemned her in "Se il padre m'abbandona," so filled with lyrical tenderness, and finally to desperate declaration that she may never recover her good name, Peretyatko was able, no doubt with Del Monaco's guiding hand, to carry this emotionally-draining scene.

If we could dip into that private place where Rossini's musical genius lies, we would find the composer's Act Three brimming with inspiration. For in this act, the composer truly took hold of his operatic powers and put to paper one of his most beautiful and detailed compositions, anticipating the romantic drama that Donizetti and Verdi would embrace in their operas. Starting with the delicate and beautifully limned "Willow Song," with an ethereal harp accompaniment, Desdemona tells Emilia the story of her dear friend Isaura who died from a broken heart. Peretyatko's vocal colors were able to capture the aria's heartbreak all the way through with a sorrowful, lyrical tone while always matching her movements to the aria's drama. Even though Peretyatko did not have the full spectrum of vocal resources to cover all the demands of the role, as in the vibrant trio with Rodrigo and Otello in Act Two , she gave the impression that she could reach that artistic level in the future.

At this point, Peretyatko and Kunde's total commitment to their roles put the opera on a stirring dramatic path. After Otello's entrance with torch in hand, underscored by ominous strings, Kunde's artistic vision came to its full realization. In the recitative before the final duet, his emotional display of jealousy, self-loathing and fearful uncertainty was so strongly projected it clearly predicted the couple's fatal outcome. Peretyatko responded to her Otello's desperation with forceful protests of her innocence. Here Del Monaco's direction rightly pulled the couple apart and pushed them together in waves of overwhelming anguish that finally ended in Otello slitting Desdemona's throat and stabbing himself. But it was the power of their emotional vocal outpouring that brought the opera to its searing conclusion and the audience to a rousing ovation.

There was, however, an air of controversy surrounding Carlo Centolavigna's unit set painted in a sky/sea motive. The designer divided the back and side walls into two sections, the top representing an open sky with flowing clouds and the bottom part representing the Adria Sea as mentioned in the opening chorus who, by the way, dressed in blood red tunics and medieval-looking skull caps, never moved a muscle. Standing in a box placed high on each side wall, the chorus was rolled out every time they had to sing. A more provocative feature of the staging consisted of nine doors that were opened, closed or moved around the stage, used as metaphors for the emotional trappings that each character experienced. It really depended on one's point of view whether Centolavigna and Del Monaco's concept came across as viable. On the 8th, the director, designer and costumer were booed at their curtain call. On the 14th, the audience was so caught up in the drama, they cheered the performers, reacting to the physical production as an afterthought.

Nicholas del Vecchio


Pictures © Studio Amati Bacciardi

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