‘They have been crucifying Othello into an opera…music good but lugubrious’. So wrote Byron of Rossini’s 1816 Otello when it was performed in Venice. Maintaining the stage until Verdi came along with his setting that sticks closer to Shakespeare’s version of the story, Rossini’s score gets a frequent airing these days, with performances in London, Pesaro, Antwerp/Ghent/Zurich (same production), Paris and so on having taken place over the last few years. However, its very popularity in the 19th Century gave rise to a number of additional versions which can be chosen from. As well as the outrageously contrived happy ending created for Rome, the machinations of a diva gave rise to a version in which the role of Otello is played en travesti by a woman and this was the version performed in concert this evening in Buxton. Although based on the so-called ‘Malibran’ version of 1831, Maria Malibran was not in fact the first diva to take on the role of the noble moor, having been pipped to this by Giuditta Pasta who sang the role at the King’s Theatre, London in 1828, which was briefly mentioned in Rodney Milnes’ excellent article in the Festival brochure. This is not the first performance of this version in current times, the Martina Franca Festival having performed it in 2000 with Patrizia Ciofi as Desdemona.
In many ways the transposition of the leading role to travesti isn’t intrinsically nonsensical; after all, audiences were familiar with the convention following the decline of the castrati, though inevitably you might be left with the feeling that Otello is a much younger man than is generally portrayed, closer to the youthful Romeo or Tancredi rather than a battle-hardened general. I can’t help thinking of a modern diva having a hissy fit and demanding that a major tenor role be transposed to suit her demands: Gheorghiu as Cavaradossi or Calaf, anyone?
The libretto by the Marchese Berio di Salsa might strike the casual reader as a betrayal of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but viewed within the conventions of the age it’s a successful, even ground-breaking telling of the basic story, which would have shocked the original audience, unused to tragic finales involving suicide. The unities of time, place and theme are imposed on the bard’s rather more fluid treatment, the action taking place wholly in Venice, in contrast to Verdi’s/Boito’s decision to set it all in Cyprus. The first two acts are admittedly conventional ottocento structures in the main, though with two concertati in the first act finale and a duet that turns into a trio in the second. The third act is an outstanding achievement for a composer who was but 24 at the time and had already written two other operas that year, La gazzetta and Il barbiere di Siviglia. So much for the oft-used accusation levelled at Rossini that he was a lazy composer! If he recycled themes from other operas ebbene, the chap had contracts to fulfil from that tyrant of an impresario Barbaja.
The Northern Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Barlow, got off to a ponderous start in the overture, the triplet semi-quavers in the bass sounding a little soggy rather than bubbling. Tempi throughout tended towards the pedestrian with only a few moments where Rossini’s music was allowed space to race ahead in exhilaration. This lead to not a few members of the audience around me clock watching as the evening progressed. At a spacious 3 hours duration, even with cuts (I will fulminate further in due course), the evening was often in danger of proving unimaginative critics correct in the assumption that Rossini could only compose comedies. There were compensations, though not least in the beautiful horn solo that heralds Desdemona’s entry prior to the duettino “Vorrei, che il tuo pensiero”.
The (admittedly young) chorus were often disappointing, particularly the male voices. They don’t have a lot to do and what they do have is homophonic, so I was surprised at how score bound they all were, In the opening chorus the men seemed overly cautious and whilst I appreciate there were only eight of them, in the intimate space of the Buxton Opera House they sounded underpowered. Even the final ‘Ah’ as Otello commits suicide suggested resignation rather than horror, as if they were put upon courtiers who knew that it would be left to them to take the bodies out and wash down the blood stains. It was very much a shame, as they were much better in Orfeo et Euridice and The Jacobin which I saw either side of this performance.
The soloists fared better, though again with unevenness and on the whole the men were more successful than the ladies. Sara Fulgoni as Otello sang with her usual full-chested tone but with surprisingly woolly grasp of some of the coloratura figuration in the opening moments of “Vincemmo, o prodi”, which carried on into the cantabile section of the aria. Filigree notes were often unclear and mushy. During the Act 1 finale, Fulgoni seemed to lack flexibility in dealing with the fioratura. If this had been a staged performance of this version, Otello en travesti might have worked much more effectively, but within the context of a concert performance it was very much a case of sings like a woman, looks like a woman, it is a woman. The Act 2 duet with Rodrigo gave her a chance to throw some thrilling top notes and throughout Act 3 things continuously improved. Fulgoni created a powerful entry with “Eccomi giunto inosservato” and the final duet for her and Desdemona, sung by Kate Ladner was genuinely frightening, with Otello killing his wife at the height of the raging tempest. If the finale here seemed inappropriately jolly to some members of the audience, dramatically it was logical, with Fulgoni expressing Otello’s confusion at the apparent resolution of all problems whilst the other characters looked forward to forgiveness all round. Cue the revelation that Desdemona has been stabbed, to be quickly followed by Otello’s suicide.
As Otello’s rival Rodrigo, Berio’s conflation of Cassio and Rodrigo, Alessandro Luciano managed the high tessitura of the role admirably, bringing a soft lyricism to his vocal presence, occasionally too pianissimo but often capable of belting out the top notes required, stretching up to a top D at one point. Despite this, the Act 2 aria “Che ascolto” was disappointing, with the vocal line being swallowed up by the curiously robotic and foursquare accompaniment of the orchestra. Now enter my tirade against cuts. The fearsome cabaletta with its high Bbs was cut in half, with no reprise of the material. As I’ve not seen the critical edition suggestion, this may have been how the ‘Malibran’ version progressed but whether it was for this reason or it was too taxing for the performer, it seemed amateurish as did the several other cuts perpetrated, all reprises of stretta material (the Act 1 finale and “L’ira d’avverso fato” were similarly deprived of repeats). If one is going to perform these obscure versions of non-repertoire pieces, at least do it with respect for the original creator. Rossini himself said ‘These are works to be left in peace…Give modern music to the public – a public that loves novelty’. If a modern audience won’t accept the conventions of the day, why bother performing these pieces?
As the hapless Desdemona, Ladner was often too cautious, with a too-soft tone that didn’t always reach us in the circle. “Vorrei, che il tuo pensiero” was timidly performed and she was often inaudible during the elegant trio of “Ti parli l’amore”. As with Fulgoni, she improved throughout the performance and the andantino and stretta of the Act 2 finale were rare examples of the music being allowed to race ahead unfettered. Act 3 is the true highlight of the piece and her Ladner was beguilingly vulnerable as she worked her way through the exquisite stanzas of the Canzone del salice, her harp accompanied Willow Song. A pity that even with a simplified harp part, ornamentation on the instrument was heavy handed and awkward but things settled and Ladner was allowed to sing rhapsodically through the song leading to her final heartfelt preghiera.
Star of the evening had to be Nicky Spence, who sang confidently and I hope with promise of more Rossini roles. Here was a tenor matching Bruce Ford in this repertoire, and it would be good to hear him in more serious Rossini in due course. Not being score bound he made the most of a role that doesn’t get an aria but takes part in several duets. His first with Rodrigo, “No, non temer”, contrasted the gentleness of Luciano with his thicker tone, making the character an attractive conspirator. If mannerisms verged on tongue-in-cheek campness, with knowing looks darted out to the audience, then at least it showed an engagement with the role that was more than welcome.
The minor roles of Emilio (Desdemona’s father) and Emilia (Desdemona’s maid) were well taken by Henry Waddington and Carolyn Dobbin respectively. Both gave committed performances and were a pleasure to hear, Dobbin especially would make an attractive Tancredi or another of Rossini’s earlier roles. If the Gondoliere’s song in Act 3, taken by Andrew Brown, felt peculiar it may have been due to somebody forgetting that it’s sung OFFSTAGE and the poor chap really shouldn’t have been stood there, self-consciously holding a lamp.
A mixed bag then and perhaps not a performance that in the main might have convinced the Buxton audience of Rossini’s skill in serious opera, but a rare chance to hear one of the composer’s more rewarding scores.