Monday, 21 July 2014

Rossini's Otello

Dress rehearsal for Rossini's Otello at Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Dress rehearsal for Rossini's Otello at Buxton Festival
photo Robert Workman
Rossini Otello; Stephen Barlow conducts Northern Chamber Orchestra; Buxton Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 20 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Rare outing for one of Rossini's major serious operas, in the rarely done mezzo-soprano version

For their third opera of the season, Buxton Festival presented a concert performance of Rossini's opera Otello. As if this was not unusual enough, the opera was given in the version for mezzo-soprano created during Rossini's lifetime for Maria Malibran. We heard the second (20 July) performance of three, with Sara Fulgoni as Otello, Kate Ladner as Desdemona, Alessandro Luciano as Rodrigo, Nicky Spence as Iago and Henry Waddington as Elmiro. Stephen Barlow conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Rossini's Otello was written in 1816, the second of nine serious operas Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, with soprano Isobella Colbran as the reigning diva and an ensemble including star tenors Andrea Nozzari and Giovanni David. Rossini's Neapolitan operas are tenor heavy because the ensemble there seems to have been. Otello lies on the cusp of Rossini's dramatic development, so that the first two acts have a relatively conventional libretto, Shakespeare re-worked for an audience used to librettos by Metastasio. But the final act is far closer to Shakespeare and Rossini's music more than equals Verdi.

Rossini works his magic using the musical structures of his age, so that the operas are built from large scale ensembles and arias. This means a performance requires singers who can sustain the long sections, as well as coping with the highly virtuosic vocal requirements. Rossini was writing for some of the finest singers of his day and it is to Buxton's credit that they assembled a team which did more than justice to the music.

Isobella Colbran was a dramatic coloratura soprano or a mezzo-soprano with a hign extension and though we think of Desdemona as something of an ingenue, Rossini's writing for her requires a soprano of some heft (think Montserrat Caballe). Kate Ladner made a poised and moving Desdemona. She spends a lot of the opera in a panic of nerves (she has secretly betrothed Otello, a man her father hates). Ladner was finely sympathetic and stylish, bringing great strength to the act one and act two finales. But it was in act three when Ladner really shone. She was mesmerising in Rossini's perfect scene for Desdemona centred on the willow song. She made you forget this was just a concert.

Sara Fulgoni brought robust virtuoso tones to the role of Otello, her voice combining a firm core with warm vibrato. Otello gets no love scene with Desdemona, we see him triumphant and jealous only. Though Fulgoni was admirable, I did miss a tenor voice in the role. In act two, Rossini gives Otello a duet with Iago (tenor, here Nicky Spence) and a duet with Rodrigo (tenor, here Alessandro Luciano) which turns into a trio with Desdemona. In these Rossini has great fun with matching the various tenor voices to each other, including the lovely 'anything you can do I can do better' moment for Rodrigo and Otello. But here, with Otello singing in the mezzo-soprano range we missed this added frisson. Also, thougb Fulgoni displayed fine vocal strength, she was rather feminine in demeanour. But Fulgoni was vividly dramatic in the great solo in act three as Otello contemplates killing Desdemona, and then Fulgoni and Ladner were superb in their final duet with Rossini's storm in the orchestra providing counterpoint.

Alessandro Luciano was a name new to me. He sang the role of Rodrigo, written for the high coloratura tenor Giovanni David. David would have used a mixture of voice, including falsetto to decorate the high lying line. Luciano showed himself well able to do similar, treating us to cadenzas going up to D or E plus bravura coloratura above the stave. His duet witn Nicky Spence's Iago with its thrilling, vendetta conclusion, was a highlight and it was followed by the white hot trio with Fulgoni and Ladner.

Nicky Spence made a mesmerising Iago. It is not a huge role, but he made it count and added a range of facial expressions, some movement and little touches to give a real sense of Iago's nature. Spence has a heavier voice than Luciano, correctly so, but he still brought brilliance and a little thrill to the coloratura.

Henry Waddington had to play a conventional heavy father, coming to the fore in the act one and act two finales. His thundered curse at the end of act one was chilling. Carolyn Dobbin was a finely sympathetic Emilia. The role is quite a substantial one, as she had a duet with Ladner and long dialogue. Dobbin impressed, providing balance and sympathy, with a nice hint of character.

The smaller roles were taken by members of the chorus. Mikhael Onelius was an imposing Doge, Andrew Brown a lyrically Italianate gondolier, and Leonel Pinheiro gave us vivid narrative at the end of act three. The hard working chorus (three different operas in three days) were given plenty to do by Rossini and they did so creditably and vivdly with a nice full blooded yet focused sound.

Though this was a concert performance, the Northern Chamber Orchestra were sensibly in the pit, which aided the balance in the more coloratura passages. The orchestra provided fine accompaniment with some lovely instrumental solos including a rapturous horn solo in act one.

Stephen Barlow conducted with a nice feel for Rossini's large scale structures, keeping the music well paced but providing space for the singers, whilst keeping an eye on the wider architecture.

The opera was give a sketch of a staging, with changes in layout between the acts, entrances and exits for the cast and chorus, a simple but effective lighting plot and extra little touches such as a moon in act three and a gondolier with a lantern.

This was a wonderfully enthralling performance with some vividly virtuosic singing. And listening to the people talking at the interval it was clear that many were discovering the power of Rossini's music for the first time. On the basis of this performance I hope we get more Rossini at Buxton.
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