Gioachino Rossini, February 29, 1792 – November 13, 1868
The Otello Set
If the swift downpour that hit Pesaro, moments before the Prima of G. Rossini’s Otello on August 8th, seemed like a bad omen, that was nothing compared to the two major cast changes that could have weakened the foundation of the Rossini Opera Festival’s new production of the opera and washed it away.
To start with, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who was slated to be ROF’s Otello, canceled at the beginning of the rehearsal period. So on July 1st, tenor Gregory Kunde got a call from the powers that be offering him the role. Kunde accepted gladly, but he had never performed the role, so he needed at least two weeks to learn it. Keeping that in mind, ROF hired tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer, who had a small role in ROF’s 2006 production of Mozart’s Die Schuldgkeit Des Ersten Gebots, as a cover for Kunde. As a cover, von Bothmer was promised one performance on August 11th. Tenor, Chris Merritt, who had not appeared in Pesaro since he sang Otello in 1991, was cast as Iago in this production. Now the cast included Kunde, Merritt and, as originally planned, Juan Diego Florez as Rodrigo. Today, Florez is known in the opera world as the supreme Rossian tenor and, with nine previous appearances at Pesaro under his belt, the singer is the object of an adoring public at the festival.
Gregory Kunde (Otello) and Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona)
As it turned out, Merritt was in poor vocal shape on the 8th, and the next day, he was suddenly taken quite ill and had to cancel. The new Iago turned out to be Spanish tenor, Jose Manuel Zapata. Whether the tenor was a cover for the role or had just been flown in to replace Merritt was not revealed, but the result was that on the 11th, the announced cast was von Bothmer, Zapata and Florez. If ever there was an opera performance fraught with apprehension as to its outcome, this was it.
The performance turned out to be a lopsided affair. Although Florez was a superlative Rodrigo, and Olga Peretyatko’s Desdemona was well-acted and beautifully sung, Zapata had a few hesitant vocal moments, yet still offered a well-thought-out Iago. The disappointment came with von Bothmer’s Otello; the role was beyond his vocal capabilities. The tenor really tried to bring a noble bearing to counteract Otello’s jealous, anxious moments, but vocally he was thwarted at every attempt. The voice was too small for the role and lay in the back of the throat, so it was difficult for him to project it forward into the house. He had difficulty with the coloratura runs in Otello’s opening aria and couldn’t reach the few high C’s that Rossini gave him. However, the way he held his composure throughout the evening was quite admirable.
Gregory Kunde (Otello) and Juan Diego Flórez (Rodrigo)
It was the performance on August 14th which really struck vocal gold. Kunde’s reviews for his first Otello on the 8th only hinted at the dynamic, explosive Otello he brought to the Adriatic Arena that evening. In fact, in 2003, Kunde’s had sung the role of Idreno in Semiramide which proved to be rough sailing for the bel canto tenor, where he exhibited some ungainly coloratura passages. As Hugh Canning recalled in his Otello review of August 26, 2007, in the Sunday Times about that performance,” His (Kunde’s) last appearances at the festival, four years ago, as Idreno…, were greeted by catcalls and booing, so it was brave and magnanimous of him to help Pesaro out of a fix.” The fix, however, segued into a vocal tour de force for Kunde whose passionate interpretation of the Moor brimmed over with such vocal conviction that he not only dazzled the audience, but also seemed to astonish himself. Most likely the reason for Kunde’s great performance was that he finally had the opportunity to sing a role he had surely coveted throughout his career and to do so, with extraordinary vocal and dramatic characterizations, in front of some of his severest critics. This Otello was the defining moment of his career.
And fortunately for the audience, vocal gold was found among the other singers as well. Rossini and Francesco Berio di Salsa, his librettist, embellished the role of Rodrigo because the great late classic tenor, Giovanni David was at their disposal in Naples in 1816, who had no trouble with the high tessitura Rossini composed. And, luckily for those in Pesaro, in August, 2007, ROF had Diego Florez, whose voice could climb the scale equally well. Florez has been on the operatic stage for ten years now and his achievements in Rossinian tenor roles have been well-documented. At this point in his career, the tenor is using all that experience to incorporate a dynamic stage presence that easily translates into a precise dramatic intensity. This theatrical know-how was most evident in his portrayal of the rejected suitor in the first scene of Act Two when Desdemona reveals that Otello is her husband. In fact, Florez, along with director Giancarlo Del Monaco, mapped out the technically-difficult aria into various emotional sections, so that it took on the feel of a short play. Starting with the recitative, “Che ascolto ! ahime!” in which Rodrigo, stunned by Desdemona’s declaration, bursts forth into disbelief in “Ah come mai non senti.” The aria, written in three parts marked allegro was sung with a growing anxiety each time Florez bit into the piece, going from confusion, to lashing out in anger and then finally registering inconsolable heartbreak. Vocally, his top notes were bright and secure, but it was the many gruppetti and grace notes that he flew through that set the audience on fire!
Maria Gortsevskaya (Emilia) and Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona)
As much as Florez dominated the tenor roles on the 11th, the performance on the 14th proved to be the complete performance that everyone wanted to hear. Zapata’s Iago was on sturdier vocal ground than previously, allowing him to concentrate on Iago’s malevolent side. In his duet with Otello in Act Two, the tenor used Del Monaco’s idea of having Iago walk with a slight limp and in need of a cane to emphasize the character’s self-loathing. Maria Fillipi’s dark green and leathery brown costumes that she created for Iago and his cohorts at court, plus the severe, almost caustic look of the makeup, pinpointed Otello and Iago’s emotional friction. Kunde and Zapata brought both power and great musical drama to the scene in which Iago shows Otello a billet-doux and a lock of Desdemona’s hair, rather than the handkerchief used in Shakespeare’s play, as evidence of her unfaithfulness. Originally intended for her husband, the love tokens were intercepted by Iago who convinces Otello they were meant for Rodrigo.
Rossini Opera Festival 2007, Signed L to R by: Juan Diego Flórez and Olga Peretyatko
Kunde’s Otello continued on his highly charged journey, first in an explosive duet with his rival, Rodrigo, who challenges the Moor to a duel and then in a trio which finds Desdemona trying, but failing, to stop the men from fighting. In the act’s last scene after the men go off, Desdemona, overwhelmed by confusion and bewilderment, falls fainting to the ground. As Emilia, her confidant, tries to revive her, Rossini introduces the scena with four long, lamenting chords, clearly lifted from the tragic ending of his Tancredi. Not only are the chords appropriate, but they created a beautiful moment for Olga Peretyatko, a young soprano from St. Petersburg, Russia, to start her transparent and many-faceted rendition of Desdemona’s plight. Going from the wounding invective,”Barbaro ciel tiranno,” to the pathos in her realization that her father, Elmiro has condemned her in “Se il padre m’abbandona,” so filled with lyrical tenderness, and finally to desperate declaration that she may never recover her good name, Peretyatko was able, no doubt with Del Monaco’s guiding hand, to carry this emotionally-draining scene.
If we could dip into that private place where Rossini’s musical genius lies, we would find the composer’s Act Three brimming with inspiration. For in this act, the composer truly took hold of his operatic powers and put to paper one of his most beautiful and detailed compositions, anticipating the romantic drama that Donizetti and Verdi would embrace in their operas. Starting with the delicate and beautifully limned “Willow Song,” with an ethereal harp accompaniment, Desdemona tells Emilia the story of her dear friend Isaura who died from a broken heart. Peretyatko’s vocal colors were able to capture the aria’s heartbreak all the way through with a sorrowful, lyrical tone while always matching her movements to the aria’s drama. Even though Peretyatko did not have the full spectrum of vocal resources to cover all the demands of the role, as in the vibrant trio with Rodrigo and Otello in Act Two , she gave the impression that she could reach that artistic level in the future.
At this point, Peretyatko and Kunde’s total commitment to their roles put the opera on a stirring dramatic path. After Otello’s entrance with torch in hand, underscored by ominous strings, Kunde’s artistic vision came to its full realization. In the recitative before the final duet, his emotional display of jealousy, self-loathing and fearful uncertainty was so strongly projected it clearly predicted the couple’s fatal outcome. Peretyatko responded to her Otello’s desperation with forceful protests of her innocence. Here Del Monaco’s direction rightly pulled the couple apart and pushed them together in waves of overwhelming anguish that finally ended in Otello slitting Desdemona’s throat and stabbing himself. But it was the power of their emotional vocal outpouring that brought the opera to its searing conclusion and the audience to a rousing ovation.
There was, however, an air of controversy surrounding Carlo Centolavigna’s unit set painted in a sky/sea motive. The designer divided the back and side walls into two sections, the top representing an open sky with flowing clouds and the bottom part representing the Adria Sea as mentioned in the opening chorus who, by the way, dressed in blood red tunics and medieval-looking skull caps, never moved a muscle. Standing in a box placed high on each side wall, the chorus was rolled out every time they had to sing. A more provocative feature of the staging consisted of nine doors that were opened, closed or moved around the stage, used as metaphors for the emotional trappings that each character experienced. It really depended on one’s point of view whether Centolavigna and Del Monaco’s concept came across as viable. On the 8th, the director, designer and costumer were booed at their curtain call. On the 14th, the audience was so caught up in the drama, they cheered the performers, reacting to the physical production as an afterthought.
Pictures © Studio Amati Bacciardi