After 145 years, Rossini’s Otello is back at La Scala. Incredibly, it hasn’t been performed at the theatre since 1870. A welcome return then for Rossini’s take on Shakespeare’s story, which he and his librettist took some liberties with (a billet-doux instead of a handkerchief and no Cassio), one of the biggest changes being to pump up the role of Rodrigo so that he is on equal footing, in terms of role size, with that of Otello.
Maybe one of the reasons that it is rarely staged is that it is so tenor hungry, with three main tenor roles, all virtuosic: Otello, Rodrigo and Iago. The three at La Scala were, respectively, Gregory Kunde, Juan Diego Flórez and Edgardo Rocha. Three very different voices, with Kunde who blends a thrilling (and loud) Heldentenor top with an elegant bel canto style; Flórez who is impressively even throughout the registers and throws off the coloratura passages if not with ease, then with precision; and Rocha who has a lighter voice which carries well and a young and bright tone. Unfortunately, they had to cope with the heavy-fisted approach of conductor Muhai Tang who could have calmed the orchestra more during many passages when the singers were difficult to hear, and given the whole reading more light and shade. Tang gave a pedestrian reading that, frankly, in the first act, was bordering on boring.
Talking of pedestrian, respected director Jürgen Flimm seemed to have phoned in his input. His sets – or rather, set – was elegant with long semi-transparent grey cloths creating the three stage walls, as were the costumes of Ursula Kudrna and it was beautifully lit by Sebastian Alphons. However, when the second act curtain went up on a stage full of folding chairs, I thought, so who is going to throw those around then? Sure enough, towards the end of Flórez’s aria he staggered through the chairs knocking them over as only opera singers can. It was full of cliché-ridden movements and Flórez probably had the best idea when he came to the front of the stage to sing, arms outstretched like Bergonzi, leaving all interpretation in the rehearsal studio.
But let’s get back to the best bits. Desdemona’s maid, and Iago’s wife, Emilia, is impressively sung by Annalisa Stroppa, and Roberto Tagliavini as Desdemona’s father, Elmiro Barberico, showed off his imposing bass voice which has a true and naturally rich colour. Olga Peretyatko too, as Desdemona, has an important and glamorous voice, though stylistically she varied more than was necessary for my liking – just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should – especially during the Canzone del Salice. Unfortunately, she occasionally aimed for high notes that were beyond her, or at least they were during the performance I attended.
Dante was born 750 years ago. While I’m sure that this had no influence in bringing Otello back to La Scala, there is a connection between Dante and Rossini’s Otello. Let La Scala’s excellent programme notes explain:
If we return to the third act, what can be more romantic than the voice of a gondolier in the distance? He sings the words from Dante’s account of the tale of Paolo and Francesca: “There is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery”…
We know from a precious communication between Rossini and Ignaz Moscheles that the decision to use Dante’s lines was indeed Rossini’s:
“I owe much to Dante; I have learnt more music from reading Dante than from all my proper music lessons. I wanted at all costs to include Dante’s lines in my Otello – you know, the lines of the gondolier. It was no use my librettist telling me that gondoliers never sing Dante, at most Tasso. I told him that I was better informed than he, because I had lived in Venice and he had not – I needed Dante”.
Rossini’s intransigence in this instance is not only an indication of the importance he attributed to this point of the drama, but it shows the changing relationship between the librettist and the composer, a change that was to reach final completion in Verdi’s day.
The third act is, indeed, the best. In fact, the opera is a slow crescendo to the moment when Otello accuses Desdemona of adultery. Just in case we hadn’t realised what was going on, Flimm left a blackboard on stage with “GELOSIA” chalked on it during the second act and he uses jealousy-green footlights. As Otello commits suicide, Flimm’s three giant cloths fall to the ground or are flown into the grid, leaving a bare stage. “Been there, done it” certainly, but it works every time. Goosebumps.