Sunday, August 22, 2010


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 22nd of August  2010  3.04 - 6 pm

PREVIEW with pictures and synopsis
INTERVIEW José Carreras with Classical Greg Stepanich

ROSSINI: Otello, an opera in three acts
Otello............................ John Osborn
Desdemona................... Olga Peretyatko
Rodrigo......................... Maxim Mironov
Elmiro........................... Riccardo Zanellato
Jago/A gondolier........... Shi Yijie
Emilia............................ Isabelle Henriquez
Lausanne Opera Chorus, Lausanne CO/Corrado Rovaris (Swiss Radio, Geneva)

"Put out the light, and then put out the light", said "one who loved not wisely but too well", the ill-fated Moor of Venice, named Othello (alias Otello); then he suffocated his wife Desdemona with a pillow, and when he realized his mistake, he stabbed himself. In Rossini's opera Otello, he uses none of those words, nor the pillow, but the dagger in each case. In the original story by Cinthio (1565), the Moor (never named) is happily married to Disdemona (sic); there is a stolen handkerchief; he has an accomplice (a counterpart of Iago), and together they knock her senseless with a sandbag and make the roof fall, setting it up as an accident; her kinsmen kill the Moor, and we have no sympathy for him.

This is a rare opera, and its infrequent staging is partly due to its proliferation of male characters; José Carreras, one of the Three Tenors who has sung Rossin's Otello, the other two having done Verdi's Otello, points out that it calls for not three but six tenors. Carreras thinks this opera is unduly neglected, and he is proud that he took the title role, with Frederica von Stade as his Desdemona, in the Philips recording, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Jesús López Cobos; this is the one I have in my collection, and  New Zealand's Keith Lewis is one of the tenors, singing Lucio, who makes his appearance at the end.

Commentators on Rossini's Otello are at pains to point out that the first two of the three acts are quite unlike the Shakespeare original (and the Verdi opera that was closely based on the Bard's Othello); look, the action is set in Venice instead of Cyprus; the characters Otello, Iago, Rodrigo, and Desdemona do different things; she is not married to Otello or anyone else; and Cassio is nowhere in sight. Note that in Act 1 she tells Roderigo that she is Otello's sposa ('spouse'),  but she means that she is committed to him, though not in wedlock.

It was first performed in December 1816, with Isabella Colbran as Desdemona (Maria Malibran, 1808-1836,  had her turn in 1834); and in 1818, Byron (first name Lord) went to a performance in Venice, having heard that it was one of Rossini's best works, and he was keen to see what they had done with Shakespeare's masterpiece; they have crucified it, he spluttered; well, the staging and costumes were fine, and the music was good though lugubrious, but the important scenes with Iago had been cut out, and the handkerchief had been turned into a billet doux. Desdemona had written a letter to Otello, declaring her love for him, and enclosing a lock of her hair; this had been intercepted by her father Elmiro; he had given it to the Doge's son Roderigo, who wishes to marry the lady; somehow Iago/Jago (who had also been rejected as a suitor by her) has acquired this love-letter and its attachment, and these are the bait he uses to arouse jealousy in Otello.

Why the libretto of Berio di Salsa is so different may be because he had seen a play Otello in Naples in 1813, though it was not published till 1826 (suggested by Roberta Marvin, and reported by Philip Gossett).

A love duet (as In Verdi's version) is lacking, but there is an alternative "happy ending" (for the tender-hearted audience in Rome) arranged from the "Amor! Possente nome" duet, from Armida, and some music from Ricciardo e Zoraide.  

What this felicitous outcome might be is still unknown to me, but if I had my way Emilia would drag Iago into the bedchamber, forcing him to tell the truth; failing that, let Desdemona use Shakespeare's pillow on Otello to deflect the dagger, and then threaten to suffocate him with it unless he smothers her with the love she deserves. Then put out the light and dance ('trip') the light fantastic in the bed.

Famous last words (after Rossini):
"I must be one with her" (insert dagger in vulnerable spot)
"Punished she shall have me". (The Italian has punito [masculine], not punita [feminine], so we know it is he who is punished.)

All: "Ah!"
(Which is what I keep saying when my hives give me stabbing pains, these days. Please send your suggested cure by return post.)

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