In a daring duo, the Liceu offered on its spring schedule a standard staged performance of the well-known Verdi Otello, which made its debut in 1887, paired with the almost-forgotten Rossini version, which preceded it by almost a century, in 1816. Alas, the staging of the Verdi detracted severely from its success, so the Liceu can breathe a great sigh of relief at the way the Rossini, which is unfortunately only playing for two nights, was received by the audience. Loud and enthusiastic applause for all aspects of the evening must have been a great relief: much more the norm at this distinguished opera house than the recent experience.
Opera is, of course, written to be a stage production, but the way it is handled these days, egoistically and grossly experimentally, with more regard for the self-expression of the scenarist than of the composer, makes concert versions very acceptable indeed. And this Rossini Otello was no exception.
It took me some time to settle into the difference between the two operas, having for a very long time accepted the Verdi as grand, tragic and definitive. When the orchestra, which, under the direction of Christopher Franklin, outdid itself on this occasion, first opened its almost jaunty introduction, I found it hard to relate to the coming tragic story. In general, that disconnect continued a bit throughout, but I have to confess that that was due to the conditioning of growing up with the Verdi version and finding a different approach (that of a different era) difficult to absorb.
The overture was a charmer, the use of wind and brass (the latter on top form, no bruised notes this evening) was notable and in delightful contrast with the more turbulent strings. In fact, at times, to quote a friend who was also present, it was more of a symphonic experience than operatic. But this was not because the singers were lacking; it was because the orchestral accompaniment was so good.
Unusually, this opera, which differs substantially from the original play and from the Verdi version, has six tenors in the roles of Otello, Elmiro (Desdemona’s father), Rodrigo (a very different Rodrigo from the Verdi one: angry, mean, vengeful), Iago, (a much smaller role for a much smaller influence), Lucio, the Doge and, for a brief and beautiful moment, the gondolier heard singing a fateful song in the distance. All were excellent.
Gregory Kunde, as Otello, retains a powerful and mellifluous voice even as he ages, paired with a very attractive personality. Rodrigo, a young Russian Dmitry Korchak, at the early stages of what is turning out to be a internationally acclaimed career, sang with strength and clarity. Shanghai native Yijie Shi made his debut in the role of Iago, and lesser though it was, he gave it gravity and presence. And I have to mention the gondolier, Beñat Egiarte, whose unseen presence was very fleeting but worth every second.
The story was disconcertingly different. Otello got little opportunity to show himself as a fine fellow: he was angry and vengeful almost from the start. Desdemona, sung by Jessica Pratt, described puzzlingly in the program as British Australian, was a total, if beautifully expressive, depressive, with good reason, thanks to her father's intransigence and her lover's jealousy. There was no love duet, no tender moment in this version.
Indeed, Desdemona had a much reduced role: her biggest and most beautiful moment being when she sang the 'Willow Song'. She has a strong and dramatic voice, full of emotion and presence. A small quibble: it is irritating when a singer feels the need to be a clothes-horse in a concert version and appears in a different outfit after each break. The change was small, and in no way affected her brilliant performance, but seemed unnecessary and distracting (Joyce Di Donato did the same thing with a very versatile red dress at one of her concert-version appearances here and I felt the same, then).
Emilia has more presence in this version than in the Verdi and was very well sung by Lidia Vinyes-Curtis (who also behaved with self-effacing courtesy throughout). I hope to hear much more from her.
Thank you, Liceu, for this opportunity. I would still award the Oscar to Verdi, but I am grateful to have been introduced to the alternative, and it is well-worth knowing.