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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Otello, Dramma in three acts.
Libretto by the Marchese Berio di Salsa, loosely based on Shakespeare’s play.
First performed at the Teatro del Fondo, Naples, 4 December 1816
Plus: Appendices including the ‘lieto fine’ (Happy Ending) of Act 3 first performed at the Teatro Argentina, Rome, during the 1819-20 carnival season.
Also an entrance aria for Desdemona and an example of music for a female travesti Otello
Otello, an African in the service of Venice, Bruce Ford (ten); Desdemona, the lover and secret wife of' Otello, Elizabeth Futral (sop); Elmiro, the father of Desdemona, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, (bass); Rodrigo, Desdemona's unsuccessful suitor, William Matteuzzi (ten); Iago, the secret enemy of Otello, Juan José Lopera (ten); Emilia, Desdemona's confidante, Enkelejda Shkosa (mezzo); The Doge, Ryland Davies (ten); Lucio, Otello's confidant. Dominic Natoli (ten); A Gondolier Barry Banks (ten)
The Geoffrey Mitchell Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/ David Parry
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, September and October 1999 using the critical edition by Michael Collins for the Rossini Foundation.
OPERA RARA ORC 18 [3 CDs: 71:58 + 77:51 + 77.34]


In the spring of 1815, at the age of 23 with the opera seria Tancredi and the buffa work L’Italiana in Algeri to his credit, Rossini was summoned to Naples by Domenico Barbarja, the impresario of the Royal Theatres of that city, the Fondo and the mighty San Carlo. Barbarja contracted Rossini to be musical director of the two Royal Theatres and to compose two operas each year for Naples.

Barbarja’s proposals appealed to Rossini for several reasons. Not only was his annual fee generous and guaranteed, but also the San Carlo had a professional orchestra, unlike the theatres of Rome and Venice. The composer saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of opera into more adventurous directions. In Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra, premiered to great enthusiasm on October 4th 1815 and the first of what were to be nine opera seria for Naples, he made imaginative use of the professional musicians with several innovations. Not least he dispensed, for the first time, with unaccompanied recitative, making way for dramatic vigour. He also wrote out in full, also for the first time, the embellishments he expected from his singers thus avoiding their choosing to show off their vocal prowess to the detriment of drama. Rossini continued this process of innovation and evolution throughout the nine opera seria he composed for the San Carlo in his seven-year stay in Naples. Musicologists note the greater sophistication and complexity of these Naples compositions compared with the ten extra-curricular works he presented elsewhere in Italy in the same period, including the buffa operas Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rome 20 February 1816) and La Cenerentola (Rome 25 January 1817). The Thieving Magpie (Milan 31 May 1817) has many more of the characteristics of the Naples operas as would befit its presentation at La Scala.

The Naples contract allowed Rossini, supposedly occasionally, to compose works for theatres in other centres. It was a clause that Rossini took much advantage of, certainly stretching it beyond the limits impresario Barbarja had intended when he brought the composer to Naples. In the first two years of this contract Rossini composed no fewer than five operas for other cities, including four for Rome. It was to The Eternal City that Rossini went after the success of Elisabetta. He presented Torvaldo e Dorliski at the Teatro Valle (26th December 1815), and after a hectic period finding a libretto and of composition, his great buffa Il Barbiere at the Teatro de Torre Argentina (Naxos issue and DVD). On his return to Naples he found the San Carlo had been destroyed by fire. He composed a cantata to celebrate the marriage of the daughter of the King of Naples, for which he pillaged much of the music from his own previous works, following which he composed his only buffa for Naples, La Gazetta, premiered at the small Teatro dei Fiorentina on 26th September 1816. This premiere had been postponed because Rossini was indulging his social life to the full, as was his wont. Perhaps the soprano Isabella Colbran, then the mistress of Barbaja, was also distracting him. It was she for whom he wrote the lead soprano parts in all the nine Naples opera seria. Colbran was to transfer her affections to Rossini, eventually in 1822 after inheriting property, becoming his wife. Certainly Barbaja was getting tetchy with the delays in the completion of the scheduled Otello. He complained, in writing, to the administrator of the Royal Theatres about Rossini’s dilatoriness in providing the finished work whilst at the same time being active with his social engagements. Otello should have been premiered on October 10th. It was first postponed for a month before being eventually staged on December 4th. As the San Carlo was not yet rebuilt it was staged at the smaller Royal Theatre, the Teatro del Fondo.

While in 1816 there had been musical adaptations of some of Shakespeare’s non-tragic plays, Rossini’s choice of Otello was distinctly adventurous. How far the cultured well-read aristocrat, Marchese Berio di Salsa who was to write the libretto influenced him in this choice, is not known. Stendhal (‘Life of Rossini’, 1824) and a friend of di Salsa was highly critical of his verses whilst Byron was excoriating in his criticism of the treatment of Shakespeare’s play. Both critics assumed the libretto to be based directly on the English play. However, around the late 1970s, evidence was presented to the Centre for Rossini Studies that the source of di Salsa’s libretto was likely to have been the play ‘Otello’ by Baron Carlo Cozena - a drama that had been staged in Naples in 1813. Jeremy Commons in his usual scholarly booklet essay maintains this possibility. What is certain is that only in the third act of Rossini’s Otello is there much relationship with Shakespeare’s play. It certainly elicited the composer’s most inspired music with a richly scored introductory prelude and the interpolation of The Gondoliers Song (CD 3 tr 2), a brilliant inspiration and creation. There is also a duet for Otello and Desdemona, the only one they have in the opera. It is set against a growing storm as the mood moves towards the work’s dramatic climax. The greatness and sophistication of Rossini’s music in the third act often blinds critics to the virtues of that in the first two and where the story diverts so much from Shakespeare. In di Salsa’s libretto the location is Venice. Desdemona is secretly pledged to Otello who has been greeted by the Doge and lauded after his victory over the Turks in Cyprus. The Doge’s son Rodrigo, together with Iago, plots against Otello. Desdemona’s father Elmiro arranges her marriage to Rodrigo but Otello halts this and a fight ensues. Iago shows Otello a letter of affection from Desdemona purporting it to be to Rodrigo although it was intended for him. This fuels Otello’s doubts, which lead to the conclusion of the third act.

Once Rossini was cajoled from the cuisine of Naples and whatever other extra-mural activities were filling his time, he composed with speed and felicity. Despite its bloody and tragic ending the opera was enthusiastically received by the press and public alike. Also despite the demand for three outstanding tenor voices, five tenors in all, Otello initially spread throughout the Italian peninsular in its original form. For a production during Rome’s carnival in the season of 1819-20 Rossini provided the ‘lieto fine’ (happy ending). This is included as an appendix to this issue (CD 3 trs 9-14). Also included, as an appendix, is an entrance aria for Desdemona. In the original composition she is introduced via a duet with Emelia (CD 1 trs 8-9). The divas of the day, being as ever hedonistic and egocentric, often introduced their own entrance aria, sometimes of another composer’s work, to show off their skills to the audience. One of many such arias, and by Rossini, was an adaptation of Malcolm’s aria from La Donna del Lago (Naples 1819). This was used by the great Giuditta Pasta, the creator of Norma and an admired Tancredi, when she assumed the role (CD 3 tr. 15). The final appendix has Otello sung by a mezzo (CD 3 trs 17-18). In other productions elsewhere in Italy the problem created by the need for three tenors was overcome with the role of Iago being transposed for baritone.

In this issue, Opera Rara juxtaposes their regular tenors Bruce Ford and William Matteuzzi as Otello and Rodrigo respectively. Ford is in appropriately regal voice. His dramatic declamation of the text is exemplary throughout and his characterisation of the role from victorious soldier (CD 1 tr. 3) through Otello’s uncertainties and ultimate destruction of his wife (CD 3 tr. 7) is superb. Ford’s strong heroic tone is well contrasted with that of Matteuzzi in their act 2 duet Che ascolto! Ah come mai senta (CD 2 trs 2-3) and in the later Ah! vieni nel tuo sangue (CD 2 tr. 9) where there is a battle of high Cs as well as swords. Regrettably, William Matteuzzi is in poor voice with his tenor sounding thin, strained and squeezed (1.49 min. of CD 2 tr. 3 and 1.03 of tr.9). The tenor voice of Juan José Lopera as Iago is also clearly differentiated in tone from his colleagues. His voice is more a strong tenore di grazia with metal in his tone as well as honey in the passaggio. His duet with Otello as he spreads his evil (CD 2 trs 5-6) is distinguished by fine characterisation.

As indicated earlier, Desdemona has no entrance aria. She has no main solo until her Assisa a pie d’un salice (willow song) to her own harp accompaniment, one of Rossini’s most consummate creations (CD 3 tr. 3). The role was originally written, as were the lead soprano roles in all of Rossini’s Naples operas, for Colbran. She had a mezzo’s tonal colouring and a vocal range from G below the stave to E flat in alt. In this performance the role is well sung by the American soprano Elizabeth Futral. She has a strong free top to her voice and a wide palette of colours lower down the range. She also characterises the varying moods and plight of Desdemona very well. She is particularly plaintive and appealing, in context and vocally, in Desdemona’s final confrontation with Otello (CD 3 tr. 7). Elizabeth Futral’s voice clearly contrasts with that of Enchilada Shkosa as Emelia, whilst the two blend exceptionally well in their duets (CD 1 trs 8-9 and CD 3 tr.1). Each is also heard to good effect in the appendices particularly where Shkosa sings the ‘Malibran’ version of Otello to the Iago of Juan Jose Lopera.

Without the appendices this recording of Otello comes into direct competition with the 1978 Philips recording with José Carreras as Otello and the American lyric mezzo Frederica von Stade as Desdemona. There are minor textual differences but only a couple of minutes of music - the timing given for act 2 of 77.51 minutes on page 8 of the booklet is an error. It should read 47.34. Carreras is in best voice and whilst having an innately better tone than Bruce Ford he is not a natural Rossinian. Nor are the tonal differences with his Iago sufficiently differentiated to my ears. Von Stade’s lovely, slightly creamy voice is beautifully displayed as Desdemona. Elsewhere the Rodrigo is easier on the ear than Matteuzzi here and Sam Ramey is a sonorous and serious Elmiro. On two mid-price discs it is considerably cheaper than this better recorded Opera Rara issue. Preference may be determined by the wish to hear the alternative happy ending and owning the luxurious packaging and informative and scholarly booklet contents that are part and parcel of Opera Rara’s issues. While both rival recordings are well conducted and recorded, Opera Rara’s more natural aural ambience tells in its favour as does the liveliness and vibrancy of the chorus.

Verdi’s Otello swept Rossini’s from the stage for over sixty years, as did his other operas with so much of the bel-canto repertoire. For those who can put such echoes aside this recording may open a new chapter in appreciation of Italian tragic opera as Rossini’s Otello did for audiences in Naples, and elsewhere, in the first fifty years of its life.

Robert J Farr
Well conducted and recorded, Opera Rara’s more natural aural ambience tells in its favour as does the liveliness and vibrancy of the chorus. ... see Full Review



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