Otello was the second opera seria which Rossini
wrote for Naples. As such, it was written for the star team
of Isabella Colbran, Andrea Nozzari, Giovanni David and Giuseppe
Ciccimara. It was designed to take advantage of these voices,
providing spectacular music in the context of an early 19th
century opera seria. The plot owes little to Shakespeare
and the immediate source of Berio's libretto was a more recent
adaptation of the story.
For its first two acts, Otello explores themes common
to Italian opera of the time; forbidden love, the conflict of
duty and desire, an innocent woman being forced to choose between
her lover and her father. Elements of the familiar plot are
thrown together and re-cast into something entirely different;
if the characters had been given other names then we'd hardly
associate the opera with Shakespeare's play. But in act 3, Rossini
and his librettist return to something like Shakespeare to create
a magical and daring conclusion.
The opera has done rather well on disc. Jésus López-Cobos directed
a 1978 recording with Jose Carreras and Frederica von Stade.
Then in 2000 came Opera Rara's recording with Bruce Ford and
Elizabeth Futral conducted by David Parry. Now we have this
live recording in Naxos's continuing series from the Rossini
in Wildbad festival.
But before we consider the recording, we need to pause and
look at what Rossini was doing with his vocal writing. His use
of the team of tenors in Naples has caused problems during revivals
in the 20th century. Colbran was a soprano, though
her voice was starting to fade and Rossini's roles for her veer
towards mezzo-soprano territory. The three principal tenors
had contrasting voices. Giovanni David, who sang Rodrigo, had
a high (very high) lyric voice with a great facility for passage-work,
a real coloratura voice. Nozzari sang Otello and he had a lower,
darker voice; but not that dark, as Rossini's writing shows.
Nozzari still possessed some facility with high passage-work,
Then finally Ciccimara, who sang Jago and whose voice did have
a distinctly baritonal quality.
It is this difference in voice types which is important as
Rossini uses it for contrast. The problem is that in a modern
day performance, we are lucky if we can find anyone at all to
sing these tricky parts and we cannot always get too fussy about
fine differentiations of voice-type.
This is a live recording of a staged performance. Those people
actually present would have had the immense good fortune to
be able to see as well as hear the performers. For those listening
to the disc at home, there are problems: the three leading tenors
are not that dissimilar in voice-type and in the absence of
a libretto, the listener sometimes has to work hard to tell
who is whom.
Michael Spyres, who sings Otello, is entirely admirable in
the role. His tone has the requisite darkness which the role
requires. On the Opera Rara disc Bruce Ford is rather light
of voice and it is Jose Carreras on the 1978 recording who comes
over as ideal. Spyres does not quite have the flexibility demanded
by the role, but he does a pretty damn good job. Unfortunately
the role of Otello is rather under-written and it is Rodrigo
who is the more important tenor. Here, we find Filippo Adami
singing the role with the sort of attack and swagger that you
would have expected for the title role. His approach is a bit
rough and ready at times, but was probably bravura enough to
have worked live. Unfortunately his tone is not noticeably lighter
than Spyres’. This means that in their act 2 duet, particularly
in the anything you can do I can do better section, the
two voices lack the thrilling contrast. On the 1978 disc, Carreras
and his Rodrigo are admirably contrasted and Carreras uses his
heavier voice to thrilling effect.
Jessica Pratt, who has been singing Rossini's Armida at Garsington
this summer (2010), makes an entirely admirable Desdemona. No-one
can quite touch Montserrat Caballé in her recording of the Willow
Song from Act 3, but I think I could live with Pratt. Her voice
turns a bit wayward under pressure at times, but then this is
a live recording. More worrying is her quite substantial vibrato,
something which I had to get used to.
Giorgio Trucco makes a solid Jago, balancing Spyres well in
their act 2 duet, but rather lacking in any feeling for the
sly, insinuating character that we know from the play. Ugo Guagliardo
is the principal bass voice in the piece, playing Elmiro, Desdemona's
father. He has a nice focused voice, one that could have been
made more fully exploited.
Under Antonino Fogliani's direction, the piece goes off with
quite some zing especially in the set-pieces. There were however
moments when I felt that the recitatives plodded somewhat. The
orchestra, the Virtuosi Brunensis, is a chamber orchestra from
Brno and they deliver a crisp and lively account with some really
lovely solo playing. The choir, as is often the case in recordings
of staged works, suffer from moments of instability of ensemble.
Naxos include a detailed summary in the CD booklet but no libretto.
Both the Opera Rara and the 1978 recordings use the Fondazione
Edition of the work. This recording uses a new edition by Florian
Bauer, but I can't see edition being a decider.
Opera Rara include various extra pieces in an appendix, including
an entrance aria for Desdemona and the happy ending written
for Rome. Both of these re-use pre-existing material. All very
fascinating but you have to pay for three discs. Opera Rara
seen to have taken a light, small-scale view of the work, and
David Parry's direction is adequate rather than thrilling.
It is the 1978 Philips recording which remains my ideal. López-Cobos
paces the work admirably and his cast are both stylish Rossinians
and admirably contrasted. If you possibly can, acquire this
But if you are curious about Rossini's version of Otello
then you will not go far wrong with this new Naxos version.