Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Otello - Dramma in three acts. (1816)
Otello, an African in the service of Venice - Michael Spyres (tenor); Desdemona, the lover and secret wife of' Otello - Jessica Pratt (soprano); Elmiro, Desdemona’s father - Ugo Guagliardo (bass); Rodrigo, Desdemona's unsuccessful suitor - Filippo Adami (tenor); Iago, Otello’s secret enemy - Giorgio Trucco (tenor); Emilia, Desdemona's confidante - Geraldine Chauvet (mezzo); The Doge, Sean Spyres (tenor); Lucio, Otello's confidant - Hugo Colin (tenor); A Gondolier, Leonardo Cortellazzi (tenor)
Transylvania State Philharmonic Chpoir, Cluj.
Virtuosi Brunensis/Antonio Fogliani
rec. live, Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, 12, 17, 19 July 2008 during the 20th Rossini in Wildbad Festival in the new revised edition after the autograph and contemporary manuscripts by Florian Bauer
NAXOS OPERA CLASSICS 8.660275-76 [68.56 + 79.34]
Most people know Rossini by his comic opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia premiered in 1816 and never out of the repertoire throughout its life to the present day. Despite being the most famous opera composer of his times the same cannot be said of the other of his thirty-eight operatic compositions. This is particularly so in respect of his serious operas (opera seria) and non-more so than those he composed during his time as music director of the Royal Theatres of Naples, a coveted post. Changing fashions that followed the emergence of first Verdi, then Puccini and the verismo composers, contributed to this. Also important were the consequential changes in the character of voices that came into being to sing these latter works. This in turn led to the decline, until the last twenty or so years, of lighter more flexibly-voiced singers able to cope with the demands of the florid music involved. It is necessary to be aware of some of the background to the Naples opera seria such as Otello fully to appreciate its revolutionary qualities.
Otello was Rossini’s nineteenth opera and the second of the nine opera seria composed for the Royal Theatres of Naples. These came about as a result of the recognition by Barbaja, the powerful impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples, of Rossini’s pre-eminence among his contemporaries. Barbaja summoned Rossini to Naples and offered him the musical directorship of the Royal Theatres, the San Carlo and Fondo. The proposal appealed to Rossini for several reasons. First, his annual fee was generous and guaranteed. Secondly, and equally important, unlike Rome and Venice, Naples had a professional orchestra. Rossini saw this as a considerable advantage as he aspired to push the boundaries of his opera composition into more adventurous directions. Under the terms of the contract, Rossini was to provide two operas each year for Naples whilst being permitted to compose occasional works for other cities. The composer tended to push the limits of this contract in this latter respect and in its first two years he composed no fewer than five operas for other venues, with Il Barbiere di Siviglia being among four for Rome
In his first Naples opera seria, Elisabetta regina d’Inghilterra, premiered to great enthusiasm on 4 December 1815, Rossini made imaginative use of professional musicians and with several innovations. For the first time he dispensed with unaccompanied recitative and which added dramatic vigour. He also, for the first time wrote out in full the embellishments he expected from his singers, thus avoiding their choosing to show off their vocal prowess to the detriment of the drama. In Otello Desdemona is introduced via a duet with Emelia (CD 1 trs.7-8) rather than the traditional entrance aria. Other innovations occur throughout the nine Naples opera seria composed during his seven-year stay.
Rossini went to Rome after the success of Elisabetta presentingTorvaldo e Dorliska at the Teatro Valle (26 December 1815), and after a hectic period finding a libretto, Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Teatro de Torre Argentina. On his return to Naples he found the San Carlo had been destroyed by fire. He composed his only Naples opera buffa, La Gazetta, premiered at the small Teatro de Fiorentina on 26 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, and later Rossini’s wife, was also distracting him. Certainly Barbaja was getting tetchy with the delays in the completion of the scheduled Otello. He wrote to the administrator of the Royal Theatres about Rossini’s dilatoriness in providing the finished work whilst being active with his social engagements. Otello should have been premiered on 10 October. It was first postponed for a month before being eventually staged on 4 December. As the San Carlo was not yet rebuilt it was staged at the smaller Royal Theatre, the Teatro del Fondo.
Rossini’s choice of Otello with its tragic ending was distinctly adventurous. Critics of the libretto assumed it to be based directly on the Shakespeare’s play. However, around the late 1970s evidence was presented to the Centre for Rossini Studies that the source of di Salsa’s libretto was more likely to have been the play Otello by Baron Carlo Cozena staged in Naples in 1813. What is certain is that only in the third act of Rossini’s Otello is there much relationship with Shakespeare’s play. That act certainly elicited the composer’s most inspired music with a richly scored introductory prelude and the interpolation of The Gondoliers Song (CD 2 tr.12), a brilliant inspiration and creation. The act also features the only duet for Otello and Desdemona (CD 2 tr.15). It is set against a growing storm, a typical Rossinian feature, 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 where the story diverts so much from Shakespeare.
In di Salsa’s libretto 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 that it was written 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 press and public alike. Despite the demand for six tenors, including three outstanding coloratura tenors, Otello initially spread throughout the Italian peninsula in its original form. Of particular note is the confrontation between Otello and Rodrigo in act 2 (CD 2 Trs.7-8) where visceral high Cs from both singersare required (p179. Rossini. Richard Osborne. Master Musicians Series. Dent 1987). For a production during Rome’s carnival in the season of 1819-20 Rossini provided an incongruous happy ending (lieto fine).
I was particularly interested to hear how Jessica Pratt as Desdemona measured up to Rossini’s vocal demands in her Willow Song (CD 2 Trs 13-14) having been impressed by her in the eponymous role in the British premiere of Rossini’s Armida at Garsington in 2010 (see review). As there, she could articulate the words better, but she sings the role with consummate musicality, strength of voice and tonal beauty. She does have the tendency to give stress to the emotions of the character by a swell on the note and could perhaps learn from the likes of Fleming and Caballé who are softer in attack but equally dramatic. In the eponymous role here Michael Spyres has the baritonal hue that Rossini accommodated for the renowned Giovanni David whilst not quite having the freedom at the top of the voice that is attributed to that famous predecessor. In the role of Rodrigo, created by Nozarri, the Naples coloratura tenor par excellence, Filippo Adami copes amazingly well (CD 2 Tr.6) and, if he is careful, he could have a good career in this increasingly staged repertoire. Ugo Guagliardo, born in Palermo, is excellent as Elmiro whilst French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet is expressive and nicely contrasted tonally with Jessica Pratt in the duets between Emilia and her mistress (CD 1 Trs.7-8 and CD 2 Tr.11).
Not altogether common among these Naples opera seria there are rival recordings. That on Philips (475 448 2) dates back to 1979 and features a not particularly idiomatic Carreras but a lovely Desdemona by the lyric mezzo Frederica Von Stade and Elmiro sung by Sam Ramey as its major strengths. At mid-price there is no libretto; same goes for this Naxos issue. More recently Opera Rara, in their usual manner gave it the ‘full works’ whilst using the critical edition by Michael Collins for the Rossini Foundation (ORC 18 see review). Spread over three full priced discs it comes with full libretto, translation into English, plus an appendix of variants Rossini composed for other singers in productions elsewhere. Although not included, these variations accommodated the famous baritone Tamburini as Iago in Paris and London in the 1830s where the work was often sung by the so-called Puritani quartet plus the tenor Ivanoff. 

The Naxos booklet has artist profiles and a good track-related synopsis. There is a libretto, in Italian at The booklet essay has self-conflicting incongruities (p.5) as to the decline of Rossini’s Otello and the influence of Verdi’s opera. The acoustic is warm whilst the applause is polite and not unduly intrusive.
Robert J Farr

see also review by Robert Hugill 

Another worthy addition to the Naxos recordings of rare Rossini operas from Bad Wildbad.