Monday, August 31, 2015

Tenors Battle Over Desdemona

Otello, ossia il moro di Venezia
Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa
July 7, 2015
Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy

Desdemona and the battling tenors
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Milan’s Teatro alla Scala commissioned Jürgen Flimm’s new production of Rossini’s Otello as part of the city’s many offerings to visitors in connection with the Expo 2015 world’s fair. Maybe not the most obvious choice as it’s all too easy to think that Rossini’s opere serie have been surpassed in one way or another despite the Renaissance of interest in Rossini buffo, but his Otello, nevertheless, has much to recommend it.

The victor returns.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: I was impressed by the complexity and sheer enjoyability of this Otello all while noting Rossini’s “recycling” habits: the overture here is almost identical to the one in Il Turco in Italia, and several arias (including showcase pieces such as Che ascolto? and Tra tante smanie e tante) are very similar to bits that he will go on to recycle in Cenerentola and La Donna del Lago – I may even be missing some additional references here as I am not familiar with the entire universe of Rossini’s myriad works. The composer popped out operas at a very fast pace, still I cannot help but smile at one famous Donizetti comment referring to his colleague as “awfully lazy.”

Why so much indecision?
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Rossini’s Otello differs from the more popular Shakespearean version of the story on many counts, the most relevant one being the more central role of the characters of Rodrigo and Desdemona’s father Elmiro. Here Otello’s jealousy is triggered by his belief that Desdemona is betraying him with Rodrigo, chosen by Elmiro as his daughter’s husband (unbeknownst to him, she already secretly married the Moorish general). Also, as in La Donna del Lago, Desdemona is the object of desire of three men (Otello, Rodrigo and Iago), which is a very welcome occasion for having a tenor bel canto feast. These details aside though, the main themes and dramatic impact of the work remain the same, particularly in the chilling finale with Desdemona’s murder and Otello’s desperate suicide after he is told that it was all Iago’s fault and Elmiro and Rodrigo would be happy if he married Desdemona.

Good night, my love.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: I was surprised by how radically different the three acts of the opera are, both dramatically and musically. I found Act I to be a bit flat as it set the stage for the different themes, with the action picking up collectively in Act II (Rodrigo’s pleading with Desdemona, her confession to already being wed to Otello, Iago’s scheming and the furious confrontation between Otello and Rodrigo). The drama explodes and peaks more intimately between Desdemona and Otello in Act III (her lyric despair, his murderous jealousy and ensuing desperate suicide).

Lui: The first act in particular feels perhaps the most methodical. Rossini’s treatment of the libretto feels at times formulaic in the dueling duets between the tenors, each taking turns repeating the same lines or slight variations thereof. But it turns out that this was all just exposition because in Act II the fireworks really begin, with the Otello-Iago duet, L’ira d’avverso fato (that by the way was picked up by Verdi in Rigoletto’s Vendetta), and the Otello-Rodrigo face off, Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue. The third act is indeed more subtle and focused on individual feelings and tensions between Otello and Desdemona.

The casualties are counted.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: There’s something quite irresistible about extraordinary tenors outsinging one another, when done right one simply cannot get enough of it – it’s exhilarating and addictive. Rossini knew that and used the dueling tenors trick in Otello and in later works as La Donna del Lago, Ermione and Armida. Interestingly, these Rossinian works marked the switch for male leading roles from the more sexually ambiguous castrato and contralto musico to tenors, made possible by the Compagnia del San Carlo in Naples available to Rossini at the time. These duets are truly a feast for the ears if great tenors are available, which seems to be one of the reasons why many of these serious operas are so rarely performed (when compared to the buffas). Otello calls for three challenging tenor roles (the title character, Rodrigo and Iago) and tonight we were lucky to have singers who were up to the task.

The tenors duke it out for Desdemona.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
The world class cast was overall very strong, with exciting peaks. Juan Diego Florez as Rodrigo was his usual sensational self, delivering bright, exciting fireworks but also highly lyric and moving moments (Ah come mai non senti / pietà dei miei tormenti). His performance left me wanting for more, too bad that the Rodrigo role does not have more lines. Gregory Kunde’s Otello was impressive, particularly for a tenor in his sixties. His is a baritonal tenor, with a beautiful timbre, manly and agile. The duets between Florez and Kunde were among the most exciting operatic moments I’ve witnessed all year.

Iago spars with Rodrigo.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Tenor Edgardo Rocha as Iago was pretty strong both vocally and as a stage presence, holding his ground next to Florez and Kunde. He was always convincingly evil to the core. Bass Roberto Tavaglini as Elmiro exhibited his powerful instrument that filled the space more than anybody else, with fluid phrasing and strong almost violent expressivity as Desdemona’s despotic father. Mezzo Annalisa Stoppa was also pretty impressive in the secondary role of Emilia, with a powerful and expressive instrument.

Soprano Olga Peretyatko as Desdemona had beautiful stage presence and displayed great acting chops. Vocally, she delivered a solid and accurate performance though not particularly exhilarating on the emotional level. Her articulation at times reminded me a lot of Netrebko’s dark chesty undertones, must be a Russian singer thing. Peretyatko carried the show as the emotional focus and core of all men involved, however, singing-wise the fellas were way more impressive, except maybe for her rendition of the Canzone del Salice (the famous Willow song) in Act III, when time stopped as Desdemona heart-wrenchingly sang from a gondola with the accompanying harpist slowly floating by in the background as though passing like two ships in the night on one of Venice’s many canals.

The ravishing Olga Peretyatko in her feathers.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Upon our first intimate glimpse of Desdemona in Act I, she is seen on the beach brushing up on her Arabic and studying the teachings of an oversized copy of the Koran with her lady-in-waiting, Emilia. It is presented as the story of a double assimilation: Otello’s Venetian social integration and Desdemona’s religious and cultural conversion. Her intentions initially seem to be good; her convictions seem strong. But none of that seems to last very long, at least not in this singer’s take on it. She is suddenly blowing like one of Dante’s lustful souls in the wind of an infernal storm. Repentant over Rodrigo’s and her father’s every last whim when in the subsequent scene she falls into their ambush that is framed in this production as a covert wedding.

Flimm's stark Otello on the "shore."
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: Jürgen Flimm’s production moves the action to the Lido, the Venetian seashore: the stage floor is surrounded by white curtains and covered in sand and rows of white Fermob chairs lined up or scattered around in different formations depending on the scene. The costumes were a hodgepodge of different eras: from nineteenth-century black and white formal wear with top hats, to black tunics with Elizabethan ruffled stiff collars and Renaissance-like armor making an appearance in the duel scenes.

Like a feather in a storm of men.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Desdemona stood out among Elizabethan-looking ladies, as she was dressed in an elegant gown covered in feathers. I wondered about the symbolism of her pronounced costume. It seems that they derived her characterization from source material of the lines that are quoted in the libretto from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno: Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / nella miseria. And in fact like the shade of poor Francesca, this Desdemona is blown around from one man to the next between her father, Iago, Rodrigo and Otello. She is like a plaything tossed about in capriciously in the wind of these men’s whims. Which is perhaps what the loggionista was referring to when he called this Desdemona “scemaaaaa!” For a character that is usually perceived as innocent, pure and good to a fault, an interpretation that casts her as so fickle would seem to go against her most prominent traits. Her heart bleeds for everybody and she seems to go along with what every man expects of her. It’s no wonder that Otello might misinterpret her faithfulness. She is putty in everyone’s hands. To some extent the libretto leaves room for this interpretation (the famous Dante quote, her willingness to abide by the mistakes of her father, etc.). But it goes against the essence of Desdemona’s fundamental goodness. She does not come off as the portrait of consummate conviction that she usually is, but rather as a plaything of all the men. And the loggionisti in our section weren’t having it! “Listen to the score! Study the music!” they shouted.

Desdemona aflutter in the wind.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: Flimm’s production did not always make complete sense to me (why is he moving the finale to a futuristic looking take on NYC’s Park Avenue South with 1950s-looking billboards and characters sporting modern day clothes?) but all in all it was generally eye pleasing. At no point did it detract from the action and always allowed the drama to unfold powerfully, which is sufficient production-wise, particularly with such a great cast.

The harrowing tragedy of intolerance.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: For a Milan that was in the throes of an immigration crisis when we arrived just a few weeks earlier, Rossini’s Otello was a timely offering, not least of all considering its opening scene which has no analog in its Shakespearean source material. Namely the scene in which Otello asks for the reward of citizenship in exchange for his heroic deeds against the Turks on behalf of his adopted patria, Venice. Of course, the story that ensues is one of close-minded intolerance and the systematic rejection and exclusion of the newly named figlio d’Adria, which everyone knows ends in tragic hoodwinking and the deaths of the two most innocent and well-meaning characters in the whole story. What kind of message is La Scala sending here in presenting such a poignant tragedy of intolerance? Simultaneous to the gesture of acceptance from his adopted fatherland, Otello is at one and the same time rejected and excluded from the very community that has just accepted him. The conspiracy descends upon him from the highest echelon of the city, Desdemona’s father, and seconded by the slimy Iago, who here is given explicit motivation as one of Desdemona’s previously spurned lovers, and Rodrigo, here her father’s favorite suitor for the hand of his daughter.

Desdemona sings the Willow Song.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: We had tickets in the nosebleed Galleria section and experienced first hand the ferocity of (some of) the Milanese public. Folks sitting next to us shouted furiously stuff like “Regista studia la musica!!,” or, “Questa Desdemona è scemaaa!!,” or else, “Il direttore è noioso!!,” to then launch themselves at intermission into animated soliloquies on how the opera should have been staged or sung, with an obsessive folly in their eyes that was highly entertaining to watch (if a bit scary). These people take opera not only seriously but also very personally. The booing is also a particularly La Scala phenomenon, unleashing hooligan-like shouting matches of boos and “bravi.” This time soprano Olga Peretyatko got a few boos (that only seemed to exacerbate the “brava” shouts from the majority of the public), while conductor Muhai Tang was not so lucky and was pretty much crucified by a vast portion of the audience shouting all sort of insults. The public was unanimous though in its uber-enthusiastic appreciation of tenors Juan Diego Florez and Gregory Kunde. No doubt opera still stirs wild passions (more or less justified) at La Scala, which is a great thing, still my heart goes out to all artists who dare perform in this theater.

– Lui & Lei 

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