United Kingdom Gioachimo Rossini, Otello (concert performance sung in Italian with English surtitles): Soloists, Northern Chamber Orchestra. Buxton Festival Chorus / Stephen Barlow (conductor), Opera House, Buxton, 17.7.2014. (RJF)
Otello, Sara Fulgoni
Rodrigo, Alessandro Luciano
Desdemona, Kate Ladner
Iago, Nicky Spence
Elmiro, Henry Waddington
Emilia, Carolyn Dobbin
Lucio, Leonel Pinheiro
Doge, Mikael Onelius
Gondoliere, Andrew Brown
In my review of Gluck’s Orfeo, also performed at this year’s Buxton Festival (see review), I told how Gluck and his librettist changed the direction of opera. With the opera seria that he composed for Naples Rossini was also something of a reformer. Earlier, in November 1810, at the young age of eighteen, his first staged opera took place at Venice’s small San Moise theatre. It was the first of a series of farse that set the composer’s career off and led to the prestigious La Fenice theatre in the city to commission and stage his serious opera Tancredi in February 1813. It was a great success, as was his full length comic L’Italiana in Algeri at the city’s San Benedetto the following May. The upshot of these two successes was to project the composer to the forefront of his many contemporaries and bring him to the notice of Domenico Barbajathe formidable impresario of the Royal Theatres of Naples. Barbajasummoned Rossini and offered him the position of musical director of the prestigious theatres.
The post appealed to Rossini because, unlike the theatres of northern Italy, the San Carlo had a fully professional orchestra and he wanted to push the genre of serious opera further in terms of musical complexity than he could elsewhere where, he commented, his barber was just as likely to lead a section of the theatre orchestra in the evening as shave him in the morning! Under the terms of his Naples contract Rossini was allowed to continue composing for other centres whilst presenting two operas each year for the Royal Theatres. Rossini pushed that freedom to the limit whilst not wholly fulfilling his obligations to Barbaja and Naples for where he wrote only nine serious operas, plus a failed comic opera, between his first, Elisabetta in 1815, and last, Zelmira in 1822. Meanwhile he composed as many for other venues on the Italian peninsula.
In writing for Naples Rossini had to accommodate the distinguished roster of singers Barbaja had assembled in the company. These included the tenors Giovanni David, who had a range of three octaves, and Andrea Nozzari whose heroic voice was both strong and flexible with a wide extension. Barbaja also had, under contract the soprano Isabella Colbran who had a mezzo’s tonal colouring and a vocal range from G below the stave to E flat in alt.She was also reputed to share Barbaja’s bed, at least until transferring her affections to Rossini and later, after they both left Naples, becoming his wife.
Rossini was late in delivering Otello, his second serious opera under his Naples contract to the extent that Barbaja complained, in writing, to the administrator of the Royal Theatres about his dilatoriness in providing the finished work whilst being active with his social engagements! This may have been jealousy or the fact that for this, his nineteenth opera, and for the first time, the composer set all the recitatives himself and orchestrated them in full rather than depending on a harpsichord continuo and farming out the work to some hack as he had done for the Barber of Seville and other works.
Otello was a great success and quickly spread throughout Italy and then to Paris, London and Vienna among other venues. During these travels the role of Otello was sung by renowned coloratura sopranos Maria Malibran and Guiditta Pasta. It remained popular in Italy, in particular, until blown out of the water by Verdi’s opera premiered in 1887 after which it largely disappeared until the nineteen fifties. Verdi’s opera is truer to Shakespeare than is Rossini whose librettist departs significantly from Shakespeare. Whilst the former omitted the Venice act and set the opera in Cyprus, Rossini set the whole in Venice.
Sara Fulgoni sang the title role of Otello. She is an alumna of the RNCM whom I first heard there in the early 1990s and from where she won the Ferrier prize. Since then I have caught her as Carmen, and whilst she has sung a wide repertoire ranging from Purcell to Wagner at some of the worlds best operatic addresses, this is her first venture, I believe, in the bel-canto coloratura repertoire. Her strong voiced singing, excellent diction and dramatic capacity to bring a character alive, held her in good stead in creating the facets of the role. In the fiendish coloratura role of Rodrigo, tenor Alessandro Luciano sang with florid style and pleasing tone only once being a little strained at the very top of his voice in meeting Rossini’s vocal challenging vocal demands. As the other tenor facing similar demands, Nicky Spence as Iago sang with full, strong, authoritative and expressive tone. In a staged perforamnce he would make a formidable scheming adversary. The act two confrontation duet between the two tenors was a vocal highlight in an evening of many such. Duets between Desdemona and Emilia are also a strong feature of the score, particularly in the final act. By then Kate Ladner as Desdemona, had already shown the quality of her singing and went on to give an outstanding portrayal with her richly coloured, expressive and strong singing. As her companion and confidante Emelia, Kate Ladner was also pleasing on the ear with good expression and smooth legato. Henry Waddington was a bespectacled serious Elmiro who projected his words and the character well.
Members of the vibrant chorus filled minor parts whilst Stephen Barlow brought out the drama and lyricism in Rossini’s score in an ideal manner whilst also ensuring that his singers were never overwhelmed. There was little effort at staging, merely comings and goings to relate to the story, except for the passage of a piece of paper that is substituted, in Maria Berio di Salsi’s libretto for Shakespeare’s handkerchief and which Boito incorporated in his libretto for Verdi.
Can one hope for a staged Rossini opera seria at Buxton? Garsington have managed two British premieres of Rossini opera seria recently, Armida in 2010 (Naples November 1817, see review) and Maometto Secondo in 2013 (Naples December 1820, see review), a recording of which has made it onto CD (Avie, AV2312). Welsh National Opera are staging Mose in Egitto (Naples 1818) and William Tell (Paris 1829) in the coming autumn, including performances at Llandudno. Meanwhile the Royal Opera House is following up last year’s performances and cinecast of La Donna del lago (Naples September 1819) with a staging of William Tell, the composer’slast opera, next summer. Meanwhile if you want to see a staging of Rossini’s Otello Decca have recently issued a film of a performance featuring Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn. It is available in DVD and Blu-ray formats at mid price (074 3865 GH).
Further concert performancesof Otelloat Buxtonfollowon Sunday 20 July 3.30pm and Saturday 26 July 7.15pm. Catch it while you can.
Robert J Farr