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Opera Southwest presents Rossini’s Otello

24 Oct

The 2012-2013 season at Opera Southwest gets under way this week with what promises to be a historic run of Rossini’s unfairly neglected “Otello”. In spite of a grueling rehearsal schedule, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Anthony Barrese took a breather to share some thoughts on this work, and how it makes for a perfect season opener in Albuquerque.

Opera Southwest’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Anthony Barrese

DV: Rossini’s Otello is, for lack of a better word, a rarity. What led to Opera Southwest’s decision to open the 2012 season with this work?

AB: We are opening our 40th anniversary season this year with Rossini’s “Otello” for a number of reasons. For starters, it is the crown jewel in our four year Rossini cycle, which began 3 seasons ago with “La cenerentola” and proceeded through “L’italiana in Algeri” and “Il barbiere di Siviglia”. After surveying these comedies, we wanted to present a Rossini opera seria that had not been staged in America for a long time; and if memory serves me well, there hasn’t been a staged production of Rossini’s Otello in America since San Francisco Opera did it in 1994. Another reason why Rossini is a perfect fit for us is that our theater, the National Hispanic Cultural Center, is not that different from many Italian regional theaters where “Otello” thrived for decades before being surpassed by Verdi’s masterpiece. Our opera house is quite intimate and the size of a Rossini orchestra fits perfectly in our pit. Lastly, there has never been an American staging of the “lieto finale”, and we’re going to be incorporating that into some of our evenings.Rodrick Dixon (Otello), Heath Huberg (Jago) and Sarah Asmar (Desdemona)

DV: I myself have never heard the lieto finale performed, but have read of it in various publications. This is the so-called “happy ending” to Otello, correct?

AB: Yes. Rossini wrote the “lieto finale” for Rome in 1820. Now, we might laugh at the idea of a happy ending tacked unto a Shakespeare tragedy, but doing happy endings of both tragic plays and opera serie was standard practice until the latter half of the 19th century. Think of the Disney-fied endings of some movies, or compare the ending of the movie of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with the book’s, and you’ll see that we still do this today. So in actuality, Rossini and Berio’s decision to do the tragic Shakespeare ending was very bold. Be that as it may, there is a musicological reason to do the lieto finale, as it contains some great music from Rossini’ “Armida” and “Ricciardo e Zoraide”; but since we don’t want to shortchange the masterpiece, we’re doing something special: On opening night we will perform both endings, and on the subsequent two performances the audience will have up to the middle of the second intermission to vote on which ending they want to see. A team of volunteers will count the votes and let myself, the singers, stage manager, and the surtitles operator know which ending is chosen. The audience will not know the fate of Desdemona and Otello until they see it enacted onstage.

DV: That sounds like a delightful decision and a win-win situation for the audience!

AB: We certainly think so. All of these unique little pieces combined to make “Otello” the perfect choice, and we’ve found that our audience is more excited about this than anything we’ve done in recent memory. Our ticket sales are better than they’ve been in any time during my tenure here.

 

DV: For those familiar with Verdi’s more famous version of Otello, what would you say are the main differences and similarities to be found in both operas?

AB: The main difference with the libretto Berio wrote for Rossini vs the libretto Boito wrote for Verdi takes place mostly in the first two acts. Berio was most likely working with either a French translation (really a re-working) of Shakespeare by Jean-Francois Ducis, or an Italian adaptation of Shakespeare by Giovanni Carlo Cosenza. Both the Ducis and the Cosenza changed Shakespeare dramatically, and fit him with an ending in which the characters live happily ever after. The fact that Berio chose to include the original Shakespeare tragic ending is remarkable considering that his source material strayed so far from the original, not to mention the fact that tragic endings were not the norm for opera serie during this period. Now when it came time for Verdi and Boito to write their Otello, they had the benefit of more up-to-date scholarly translations of Shakespeare (remember, Boito’s first libretto ever was an adaptation of Hamlet, or “Amleto” for Franco Faccio in 1865, so he knew his Shakespeare). In the Rossini opera, the first two acts have very little to do with Shakespeare. Rather it’s a classical love triangle between Otello, Rodrigo, and Desdemona, or even a love square if you include Iago. And Elmiro (Desdemona’s father) harbors a hatred of Otello that has no parallel in the Verdi (although, it could be argued the first scene of the Shakespeare provides some basis for this).Preparing Otello: Read-through with the cast

DV: And musically?Preparing Otello: Read-through with the cast

AB: Well, musically speaking some of the Verdi is straight out of the Rossini. For example, people always talk about how innovative Otello’s entrance is in the Verdi. You have a gigantic introduction for chorus and orchestra in which everybody is playing and singing as loud as they possibly can about the arrival of Otello. The man enters, explodes into a brief stentorian recitative, and walks offstage. In the Rossini it’s almost the exact same thing. The orchestra is blasting away, the crowd is singing “Viva Otello!” and then he comes on and blasts into this powerful, heroic recitative. The only difference here is that Rossini has him continue into an aria.

AB: The other main similarity has to do with the structure of the final act in both operas. You have an orchestral introduction, then a recitative, followed, in Rossini by a brief and beautiful gondolier song, and then on to the willow song. Another brief recitative leads to a “preghiera” (an “Ave Maria” in the Verdi), followed by an orchestral interlude to introduce Otello, culminating in the final duet and murder, brief in both operas. Both operas differ from Shakespeare in this respect. In the Shakespeare play, Desdemona closes the fourth Act with the willow song, and the curtain closes when she goes to bed. Act V opens with a scene which includes Rodrigo, Cassio and Iago, after which we come back to Desdemona’s chambers for the final confrontation. Berio (and later Boito) wisely did away with this intervening scene to keep the dramatic continuity going. We also have to remember that this was Rossini’s first opera in three acts. And while it’s still considered a number opera, the entire last act is all one number. The dramatic weight of the piece, something completely new to Rossini at this point, demanded special attention.

DV: This opera enjoyed tremendous popularity during the 18th century and it was considered a major prima donna vehicle for some of the greatest singers of that century. Why would you say the opera’s popularity has waned so much?

AB: I think that there are two main reasons that this opera is not done as much these days. The first, and most obvious, is the existence of Verdi’s Otello which is so much closer to the Shakespeare throughout, whereas in the case of Rossini’s little resembles its source in the first two acts. But it’s important to realize that, in its time, Rossini’s Otello was hugely popular. Between the time of its premiere and the debut of Verdi’s masterpiece, Rossini’s Otello had 291 productions in 87 cities, 26 countries and 8 languages. And for all the greatness of the Verdi’s treatment, Verdi *did* wait until the very end of his career to write Otello, the Rossini being so popular.

Preparing Otello: Orchestra Rehearsal

AB: Another huge reason why Rossini’s Otello is not done as much as it should be is that it requires a total of six tenors (five if you double cast the gondolier), and while three of them are reserved for small roles, Otello, Rodrigo, and Iago are monstrous sings. The roles of Otello and Rodrigo were written for two of the greatest tenors in Rossini’s age: Andrea Nozzari and Giovanni David, who had two very different voices. This makes the opera very difficult to cast, yet I think we’re going to see a resurgence of this piece. Opera in the Heights in Houston is doing it about a week before we are, and it is certainly done in Europe a lot (there was a new production w Bartoli in Zurich earlier this year). There have been concert performances of it with OONY and Carammoor in recent decades. With bigger companies doing more of Rossini’s serious pieces, I think it won’t be long before we see “Otello” popping up again.

DV: There are odd traditions surrounding operas of this period, and Otello is no stranger to them. Back when this opera was opening seasons in London and Paris, the great soprano Giuditta Pasta took on the male role of Otello and his Desdemonas were Henriette Sontag and/or Maria Malibran depending on the city you were lucky enough to be in. Would something like that be possible today?

AB: I can see a bigger company doing that as a showcase for a famous singer, but I think that the tradition of having a woman sing the role of Otello wouldn’t be something that we would necessarily do.

DV: From your point of view, what are some of the musical challenges presented by this opera?

AB: From the conductor’s point of view the biggest musical challenge has to do with reproducing an opera that, in its time, had no conductor. We forget that conductors didn’t exist in Italian opera the way they do now until about middle Verdi. I’m also a big fan of ornamentation in Rossini. We know that Rossini himself wrote three sets of variations for the Willow song for different singers, and if he were around today, he undoubtedly would’ve written more for the singers of today. So whenever I deal with a Rossini score, I try to keep that in mind and try to encourage singers to experiment with ornamentation: Even with changing it up from night to night. So coordinating that with a group of singers (none of whom have done these roles before), and the orchestra will be challenging, but we have a great cast and I’m looking forward to trying this out.

Preparing Otello: Orchestra Rehearsal

DV: What were some of the challenges that were encountered when it came time to cast this opera?

AB: Part of the challenge in casting is that this is not so standard a repertoire that you could just look at a huge list of people who have done it in the past. You also have a less clear mental picture of what type of sound you want, as the available recordings are so very different from each other. That said, this makes for a great opportunity to get to the know the opera from a purely musical point of view, and not worry about “who sang who in the past” so much as “what kind of singer can do the things that Rossini is asking?” Studying the opera, you get to know that Rodrigo and Otello are completely different types of tenors. Rodrigo is the fireworks, show-stopping kind of tenor who lives on high Bb, while Otello is the darker sound with a much bigger range, especially in the lower area (he goes down to low A a number of times). And then there’s Desdemona, who is typically sung by a mezzo, but your mezzo needs really reliable high Cs (these are not optional notes). But the role sits pretty solidly in the middle of the staff. So you either need a mezzo with high notes or a soprano with a middle and bottom. There are other little challenges, like casting the gondolier. He has arguably some of the most beautiful and famous music in the opera (Liszt even based a section from Années de pèlerinage on it). But it only lasts 2 pages! So you have to find someone with a beautiful, memorable voice, but you can’t pay that person the same as Otello or Rodrigo. Luckily, we have some really stunning local tenors in Albuquerque, and we have tapped on that resource.

DV: Anyone familiar with this opera will have a favorite moment. In your case, you get to make the thing firsthand. As a musician, are there any specific moments in this score that you find particularly moving or special to you?

AB: There are so many stunning moments in this score I could go on and on, but I’ll narrow it down to 3 different spots. In the first Act Finale, after Desdemona has admitted that she’s sworn herself to Otello (previously unbeknownst to Rodrigo and Elmiro,) Rodrigo and Elmiro scream out a standard operatic “woe is me/anger” sentiment: “per me non hai piu’ fulimini inesorabil ciel!” (Inexorable Heaven, you have no more thunderbolts for me!) the setting of which is fantastic. Musically speaking, the harmony starts to dissolve and Elmiro barks out what should be “Ti maledico!” (I curse you), but he only gets to “Ti maledi…” and the chorus all scream “Ah!” Now what’s so interesting to me about this is that it is the exact same notes Verdi gives to Monterrone in Rigoletto during the exact same words and sentiment. That whole C to Eb motif is all over the place, and always associated with the malediction. Here, Rossini has done the exact same thing, decades before Verdi ever wrote the opera.

AB: Act two contains another highlight for me, which is pretty much the entire trio between Otello, Rodrigo, and Desdemona. Towards the end of it we have a classic Rossini crescendo, with the music getting more and more hysterical, rising to a pitch where it can’t possibly get any more intense, and then having it come down slightly, only start all over again. In college I took a class on “Beethoven and Rossini,” and the teacher described the greatest moments in Rossini operas as “in wave form,” and that’s exactly how this music comes at you. It builds and builds and then comes crashing down, only to start over again. It’s an exhausting and thrilling process. Act III of Rossini’s Otello is one of the most amazing creations in all of opera. Philip Gossett said something about it: “If there is a watershed moment between bel canto, and the later Romantic melodramas of Donizetti and Verdi, it is the third Act of Rossini’s Otello,” and I think he’s right. There are many great moments in it, but for my money the greatest, most terrifying moment comes right after Otello has stabbed Desdemona. The orchestra comes crashing down and begins this tiny, spiky, motor in the strings that is very reminiscent of the 1st movement of Vivadi’s “Winter” in “the Four Seasons.” Harsh dissonances pile up slowly, almost inaudibly, and then the entire orchestra explodes like a cannon, only to revert back to that small, quiet, and spikey figure. And then comes the cannon again. These loud bursts of energy are someone knocking at the door, but in a more psychological viewpoint they can be interpreted as reality stabbing through Otello’s consciousness: The reality of what he’s just done setting in.

DV: Now that the focus on Rossini has been shifted towards his more serious subjects, can we expect other opere serie in the coming seasons? If so, can you give us any hints?

AB: “Otello” is the crowning jewel of our Rossini cycle, and since Santa Fe is doing some Rossini serious operas in the next couple of seasons, we will be taking a short break from Rossini after this season but we will come back to him later on. Amongst the Rossini operas that I am itching to do are Count Ory (there is a new critical edition of it that has been yet to be performed in America), Tancredi (which has the opposite situation of Otello, in that he wrote a happy ending for it, and then later on tried out a tragic ending), and some of the comedies like Il Signor Bruschino, or even Il Turco in Italia. Of course, my ultimate dream is to stage “Guillaume Tell” someday, which I consider to be one of the greatest operas ever written. But there are lots of things to do, and I have a feeling we’re going to be returning to Rossini sooner rather than later.

Opera Southwest’s presentation Rossini’s Otello opens this Sunday, October 28th. For tickets and more information, please visit the company’s website at: http://www.operasouthwest.org

-Daniel Vasquez

 
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