Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Fireworks Get Visceral in Rossini's Otello

Rossini’s Otello
Lightspace Studios, Brooklyn
March 25, 2017

Rossini fireworks with feeling
Photo credit: Robert Altman
When we discovered Rossini’s Otello at La Scala a couple of years ago, we came out pretty exhilarated by all that testosterone in its bel canto form (we were lucky to get the stellar Kunde-Florez tenor duo), but were not particularly moved by the Desdemona character (Peretyatko) nor by the overall opera per se. At the time we were still believers that Rossini usually has a dazzling effect, yes, but his operas are hardly ever truly emotionally gut-wrenching.

LoftOpera’s production of this same work changed my mind forever about Rossini’s soul-stirring powers. By the time the performance was over on Saturday night, I was an emotional wreck, weeping inconsolably. I came out of the venue pretty distraught after crying for good part of Act III. This time, in addition to the expected bel canto vocal fireworks, visceral dramatic tension built up throughout the performance, and really exploded in the last act, culminating in the chilling finale.   

Explosive drama comes home in Rossini's Otello
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Even in the improbable hands of the tuneful Rossini, this particular performance delivered the inevitability of Shakespearean tragedy with a force that knocked me off my feet and left me feeling desperately sorry for the characters who were unable to save themselves. This type of cathartic and deeply human experience is the ultimate reason why we go to the opera.

Rossini’s version of Il Moro di Venezia is very rarely performed. Having been eclipsed by Verdi’s take on the same material, it is also very difficult to line up a cast capable of tackling it. The opera requires really at least three solid bel canto lyric tenors, one agile bass and one extraordinary soprano. Being so rare, it is also hard to find singers who know it. The cast lined up by LoftOpera was impressive, strong throughout and with unbelievable peaks (Desdemona, Otello and Iago). Remarkably, this performance was a terrific role debut for everybody on stage. In addition to inhabiting their characters masterfully and tackling the difficult bel canto score, all of the singers displayed excellent Italian diction, so much that I did not have to look at supertitles at all – virtually unheard of with non-native speakers.

Iago oversees the battle of the tenors
Photo credit: Siobahn Sung
One of my favorite features of this opera is the over-abundance of tenors constantly battling and out-singing each other, in a display of bel canto manliness that can be a true treat. Bernard Holcomb was an excellent Otello, with clean musicality and effortless high notes. The title role is a particularly demanding one and Holcomb effectively displayed the ample range of colors and emotions required, from triumphant heroism to belligerent jealousy, from defeated heartbreak to defiant resolution and destructive desperation. Holcomb’s tenor is strong and manly but also has a graceful freshness, a purity even, that brought Otello’s vulnerability, innocence and ultimate humanity to the fore.

Blake Friedman was a sensational Iago, with a fluid, warm and beautiful sound, which made his innate evilness all the more treacherous. His acting, though, left absolutely no doubt about his character being the villain and mastermind pulling all the strings to trigger the drama. He was a real smooth operator with his blond hair slicked back and his three piece suit and ascot always looking the part. Apparently channeling Steve Bannon, Friedman carried himself with deliberately slow and calculated movements, which he endowed with a sardonic, unctuous mellifluousness. His stage presence was so commanding that it was impossible to take your eyes off him every time he was on. Vocally, one of his most memorable moments was the duet with Otello in Act II (L’ira d’avverso fato), one of those delicious and exhilarating battles of tenors that make this opera so enjoyable.

Rodrigo seizes his slimy opportunity
Photo credit: Robert Altman
As Rodrigo, Thor Arbjornsson delivered a solid and competent performance. His tenor is very high, but with nasal and metallic undertones, that gave an interesting spin to his character, almost snarly at times (which is at odds with the nature of his music but works with the character, especially since he effectively plots with Iago against Otello). Arbjornsson does not have a big or particularly swooning voice, but the intimate venue worked in his favor and his technique was spot on as he tackled the most show stopping and challenging arias in the whole opera. He was at his best in the pleading Ah come mai non senti / pietà dei miei tormenti, and his thrilling duet with Otello, Ah vieni nel tuo sangue.  

Last but not least in the tenor roster, John Ramseyer was an unbelievable gondolier - a minor but important character who sings for probably two minutes tops. When he appeared in a ghostly Venetian mask and delivered his canzone, he had a lyrical gravitas that exuded longing and nostalgia, with a heartbreaking depth that left the audience gasping (and this writer crying). It was one of those magical moments when time stopped as Act III switched to a more intimate and reflective mood. Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria (there’s no greater pain / than remembering happy times during miserable ones). The verses are lifted verbatim from the tale of the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno and, as used by Rossini, trigger Desdemona’s ultimate descent into the darker, lonelier side of the opera.

The tenors triangulate around one object: Desdemona
Photo credit: Robert Altman
All of the tenors were impressive, but with them alone Otello is just another Rossinian display of bel canto fireworks. The singer who truly stole the show, becoming the beating, emotional heart of the opera was Cecilia Violetta Lopez. Hers is a beautiful, warm soprano that mastered Desdemona’s demanding and multi-layered bel canto role, carrying every duet, trio and ensemble piece with effortless grace, lyric power and agility. She absolutely owned her show-stopping solo arias, particularly the tumultuous mad scene in Act II and the Canzone del salice in Act III, when her heartache was so palpable that it was impossible to hold back tears.

Forever faithfully the wife of Otello
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Her performance was so convincing that she did not simply portray Desdemona, she was Desdemona. Lopez’s heroine is not a wishy-washy limp little victim (as was the case with Peretyatko at La Scala), but rather a fierce woman who knows who she loves and will not go down without a fight. In the Act I finale, when all hell breaks loose because it is discovered that she and Otello have already eloped, she is defiant about it (Giurai! – I swore myself to him!), even when her father throws her on the floor cursing her. When the plot thickens (i.e., Iago orchestrates the Rodrigo/Otello rivalry) and she needs to deal with Rodrigo’s amorous advances, she slaps him (right after his climactic high C) and storms away. It was really something.

Uccidimi se vuoi!
Photo credit: LoftOpera
During her mad scene, fearing for Otello’s life, her love for him explodes from out of the words, music and her singing. She was so distressed that her hands were visibly shaking and she threw herself against the wall. She brought this passage of the score forcefully to life, lending deep meaning to her madness. In the final confrontation with Otello, Desdemona’s desperation reaches yet a new high, as she dares him to kill her, fiery and passionate until the end, with an intensity that did justice to the powerful libretto (Uccidimi se vuoi, perfido! Ingrato! – Non arrestare il colpo / vibralo a questo core / sfoga il tuo reo furore / intrepida morrò).*

Cecilia Violetta Lopez is an exciting singing actress. She delivered one of the most sensational and explosive performances I’ve ever seen live. We were very lucky to have caught her in such an intimate setting while LoftOpera still can afford her. Ms. Lopez seems to have what it takes to hit international operatic stardom very soon.
The excellent cast was completed by bass baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, as Desdemona’s father Elmiro, and mezzo Toby Newman, as her confidante Emilia. Musik-Ayala pulled off a mature Marcello Mastroianni look (Fellini references abounded) and was particularly memorable as a grounding force in the various ensemble pieces, as well as a nasty fatherly figure, brutalizing poor Desdemona at every turn.

Fellini's Le notti di Cabiria greets you
Photo credit: Caterina De Bianchi
The production concept of stage director John de los Santos moves the action to the 1950s, the economic boom in post-war Italy known as the “miracolo italiano.” A silent screening of Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria before the show helped frame the cultural period, and costumes and stage props had a glamorous 1950s look. This directorial take worked most of the time. While it did not detract from the content of the story, it did not add much either. All in all, it made great use of the intimate space and had some clever touches.

One interesting idea was to have a little vignette immediately before the overture, where Desdemona tenderly kisses Otello goodbye in her bedroom and the two say to each other, mi serba intatta la fè (be faithful to me). This is a line Otello will later say as an aside to his beloved in the group scene at the end of Act I, when chaos ensues after he reveals that he and Desdemona are already secretly married. While this little prelude is not part of the original libretto, it does help frame the backstory that Otello and Desdemona were genuinely in love and expressed serious vows of faithfulness to each other. The strength of their love is otherwise not so directly displayed in the rest of the opera. They spend their time fighting everybody who wants to draw them apart (as well each other’s demons) so the addition was a lovely touch.

This is rare, difficult material – it takes guts, passion and mastery to pull it off. The bel canto expertise, dedication and leadership of music director and conductor Sean Kelly shone through every detail (casting, conducting, Italian and musical coaching, balance between orchestra and singers). In the hands of maestro Kelly, Rossini is not only entertaining vocal gymnastics but also true, colorful emotional expression. So alive and mind-blowing.

Maestro Sean Kelly at the helm
Photo credit: Robert Altman
In the past we’ve harped on and on about how the genius of this company lies in the way they bring raw operatic experiences to unconventional venues that appeal to the under-30 crowd. This time it felt a little different. The venue was less of a cavernous industrial space and more of an intimate photo studio with a hip art gallery feel to it, and the crowd was a bit more grown up and sophisticated than at other shows. Still, the evening kept the magic of going to the middle of nowhere, looking for the O P E R A sign and entering into a parallel universe populated by 300-odd people eager to sit through (and go wild for) an epic performance of a rare Rossini opera.

All six performance dates sold out pretty quickly and I’m sure that if they had extended the run they would have had no problem whatsoever filling those seats. As always, there is something that feels awfully right about what LoftOpera does to the art form, with the perfect balance between artistic excellence and unassuming cool. Next up, a baroque medley of Pergolesi and Vivaldi in June.

– Lei & Lui

* Kill me if you wish, evil one! Traitor! - Don’t hold back / Strike me in the heart / Unleash your wicked fury / Fearless, I will die.

LoftOpera vibes all around
Photo credit: LoftOpera

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