Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868)
Otello (1816)
Otello – Michael Spyres (tenor)
Desdemona – Jessica Pratt (soprano)
Elmiro – Ugo Guagliardo (bass)
Jago – Giorgio Trucco (tenor)
Rodrigo – Filippo Adami (tenor)
Emilia – Geraldine Chauvet (mezzo)
Il Doge – Sean Spyres (tenor)
Lucio – Hugo Colin (tenor)
Un gondoliere – Loenardo Cortellazzi (tenor)
Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj
Virtuosi Brunensis/Antonino Fogliani
rec. live, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, 12, 17, 19 July 2008
NAXOS 8.660275-76 [68.58 + 79.34]

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 recording.

But if you are curious about Rossini's version of Otello then you will not go far wrong with this new Naxos version.

Robert Hugill