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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Otello - Opera in three acts. Libretto by Francesco Berio di Salsa
Otello, José Carreras (ten); Desdemona, Frederica von Stade (sop); Elmiro, Samuel Ramey (bass); Rodrigo, Salvatore Fisichella (ten); Jago, Gianfranco Pastine (ten); Emilia, Nucci Condo (Mezzo); Lucio, Keith Lewis (ten)
Ambrosian Opera Chorus/John McCarthy
Philharmonia Orchestra/Jesús López-Cobos
Recorded London September 1978
Bargain price
PHILIPS CLASSICS DUO 475 448-2 [2CDs: 78.48+74.07]

 

Anyone contemplating a purchase of this Philips reissue in their budget "duo" series needs to know one thing - there is no libretto provided. This may not matter if you are an Italian speaker practised in listening to the sung word. But even that, I am informed by an Italian friend, is not at all easy considering the flowery coloratura style in which Rossini writes.

The easy way around this is to purchase Philips’ previous packaging of the same performance. I saw this on sale in a London CD store for under £20 ($34 approx) which I thought a bargain but you can get it on-line from Amazon for an astonishing £12 ($20).( Crotchet £16.99  AmazonUK £11.99 - probably whilst stocks last - LM)  It contains a full libretto in four languages and an informative six-page article. This recent shoddily packed version has none of these but is not likely to sell at anything less than Amazon’s price for the superior version.

What makes it such a bargain, in either presentation, is this 1978 performance which has all-round strengths in recorded sound, orchestral playing, and singing that includes José Carreras in his invigorating youthful prime.

Rossini’s Otello cannot be described as a repertory work yet it contains much music that represents the composer at his very best. One problem with its reputation is the prime association of Rossini with comedy opera buffa and a public perception that his serious operas could not possibly be as good as The Barber of Seville. The main obstacle though was thrown up by Verdi in 1887 when he produced his own Otello, for many one of the greatest of all operas and certainly the finest Shakespeare operatic adaptation, with a brilliant, faithful libretto by Boito.

Rossini's librettist is not too concerned with the Shakespeare text but more with the business of adapting the story to Opera Seria conventions. Thus it becomes a tale of a woman marrying in secret against father's wishes, much scheming, duels and a curse. What was a bold breaking of the mould though was the adherence to the bard’s tragic ending with the murder of Desdemona. This was too much for audiences though, so in 1823, seven years after the premier, Rossini revised it to allow Desdemona to live. In the minimalist booklet provided with this recording you would not even know there was another version, let alone which one this was. In fact we get the original.

So it is not helpful, in appreciating this opera, to get hung up on Shakespearean text issues. And anyway, there is a recent school of thought that suggests the librettist was using another source!

Lord Byron, no less, made the mistake of approaching the opera as musical Shakespeare when he went to see it in 1819. He got quite excited about the fact that he was seeing the opera in the city where the action took place.

"Tomorrow night I am going to see Otello......to discover what they will make of Shakespeare in music."

Afterwards, disillusioned on that front, he wrote, "They have been crucifying Otello into an opera…. Music good.......Scenery, dresses and music very good".

The great poet must be given credit for at least recognising the quality of the music. Nowadays, cognoscenti are fond of declaring that Otello contains some of the best music of the then 24 year old composer. The first act, for example, has some superb set pieces such as the duet between Desdemona and Emilia, and the extended finale is a triumph of musical and dramatic build-up that incorporates astonishing ranges of mood.

In some ways things get even better in the third act, representing a step forward in Rossini's musical and dramatic development (coincidentally the same point as Wagner in Siegfried). Rossini responds to the tragic dénouement with a flexibility that attacks some current conventions and helps to serve the drama well, generating powerful emotion free of sentimentality.

This twenty six year old recorded performance does Rossini proud. There is no significant weakness in any department. From the Overture start we can hear that there is, in London’s Philharmonia, a crack orchestra at work, and the wonderful little woodwind solos are clearly in the hands of distinguished players.

Casting the singers in this work is not an easy business since it requires, unusually, three tenors in the leading male roles. Led by Carreras they perform excellently and their voices contrast well which aids characterisation. Frederica von Stade sings authoritatively although some may feel her slightly hard-edged tone may not be in keeping with the demure innocence of Desdemona. Paradoxically, she softens her consonants in a way that makes it obvious she is not a native Italian. As her father, Samuel Ramey, an experienced Rossini interpreter, is commanding, as is Jesús López-Cobos with his baton.

So if you want a recording of this opera, this is the one to have. A later recording made by Opera Rara with Bruce Ford as Otello does not have the same all-round strengths although it does contain, in addition to the standard early version, the alternative "happy ending" revision. This takes it to three discs and it is much more expensive. So if you want to go for the Philips, make sure you get the earlier package with the libretto. The number is 432 456-2.

John Leeman



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