A Tour de Force and a Triumph in Otello versus Otello at Al Bustan Festival

Nélida Nassar   03.01.2016

The Al Bustan Festival recently offered a clever and unusual pairing that deserves great praise: an astounding dual interpretation of Shakespeare’s Otello. In a bold and confident move it presented both the well-known version by Verdi and excerpts from the infrequently performed one by Rossini, which was undoubtedly a first-time experience for many of us. The title role in Rossini’s Otello was sung by South Korean lyric tenor Ji-Min Park and in Verdi’s by dramatic tenor Kristian Benedikt.

The two operas are separated by most of the 19th century, and by something other than years. Rossini’s 1816 work, composed in a month, dates from his energetic youth, while Verdi’s, which took seven years and was not completed until 1887, is the work of a master. Verdi, a lifelong operagoer, of course grew up absorbing the bel canto technique of falsettone prevalent in Rossini’s period. The advent, among tenors, of the famous “chest-voice high C,” replacing some the higher notes “above A,” was part of a move toward the vocal expression of great emotion that differentiates Rossini from Verdi, as the latter drifted away from the bel canto tradition. All his life Verdi also cultivated the baritone voice, to the point that it has become common to speak of a “Verdian baritone.” Rossini established the preliminary outlines of a tradition that Verdi took to its limits. The twin performance provided many opportunities to compare both poles of this tradition while honoring Shakespeare’s resilience as a source.

Long supplanted by Verdi’s version, Rossini’s Otello has recently resurfaced in the concert hall. Five main characteristics differentiate it from its later counterpart. It is a Neapolitan opera; it sets a precedent in using an original literary text for the libretto; it ushered in romanticism in Italian opera; it is an opera of tenors; and the theme of jealousy is relegated to a secondary position.

Rossini’s innovative drama per musica dates from the composer’s most creative period. His selection and adaption of a Shakespeare play was an audacious first for 19th century opera, although he in the fact took considerable liberties with the original text. Introducing an imaginative style in the libretto, Rossini favored substance over form, presaging romanticism. He managed to distance himself from contemporary dramaturgical conventions, inaugurating a change whereby passion in opera would be presented in a more realistic, and more tumultuous, manner. His innovations included limiting the number of tunes, abandoning the secco recitative, and leaving out the love duet, to name but a few. Until then, characters rarely died in Italian opera, and if they did, it was usually off-stage, usually with the villain meeting a deserved end. Rossini’s Otello was the first great opera with what we may term a tragic “romantic” ending. He was also the first composer who brought three tenors onto the stage at the same time, a century and a half before the appearance of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras, a configuration that no previous composer had dared to use.

The Al Bustan Festival engaged tenors Ji-Min Park, Sergey Romanovsky and Bechara Moufarej to play, respectively, the roles of Otello, Rodrigo and Iago. Their vocal range was sufficiently differentiated for the combination of their voices to sound harmonious. Secure technically, Park negotiated his flowing lines with agility and a flickering vibrato. His warm tessitura had a dark color accentuating Otello’s heroism and made him especially fearsome, while Romanovsky, a tenore di grazie, was lighter, airy and flexible in his aria “Ah! come mai non sent;” they were well matched, and you could still distinguish the high notes. Moufarej portrayed the scheming Iago, attempting to hold his own although with some vocal limitations. Rossini wrote three splendid duets, one for each combination of tenors, the highlight being the Otello-Iago “Ah! viene, nel tuo sangue” that Park and Romanovsky sang with considerable virtuosity. Soprano Hye-Youn as Desdemona projected emotional intensity, and her vibrant voice, full of brightness and vigor, displayed a remarkably wide range along with power and flexibility. She delighted the audience with her vivacity, accuracy, and ascending chromatic runs or arpeggios, vocal lines dazzling with strength and grace.

Is Rossini’s Otello a drama about jealousy? Not really. While the poison instilled in the Moor’s mind by Iago leads to tragedy and influenced Verdi to construct his dramatic opera more in accordance with Shakespeare’s text, Rossini’s dramma per musica seems to neglect this moving and passionate element. Iago’s role is less dominant and he ultimately disappears in the middle of the opera, the handkerchief he waves replaced by a letter with a lock of hair, a less deceitful and subtle detail. Desdemona’s father Elmiro’s hatred of Otello – absent from Verdi’s version – is almost sufficient to justify the drama. The reason for his enmity of the captain of the armies is the latter’s foreign nationality, marked by the dark color of his skin. More than jealousy, it is racism that is a major theme of Rossini’s Otello, a subject which unfortunately has lost none of its relevance and that may explain much of the recent interest in the work.

In the Rossini, Maestro Marcianó conducted the Al Bustan Orchestra with enthusiasm, but the sound of the ensemble’s strings was often a little weak, which made for a balance that favored the singers, and sometimes greater robustness would have been welcome. There was nice work from the winds in Rossini’s “The Willow Song,” which looks forward to the English horn in Verdi’s later version of it. Marcianó selection respected and fully conveyed Rossini’s vision.

Then it was time for one of the best roles in the Verdian repertory, that of the Moor of Venice. The role, immortalized by tenor Jon Vickers in the 1970s, requires both courage and a strong dramatic sense. It is a relatively short opera (in four acts) in which Verdi expressed emotions with a tension and a restlessness not found in any of his previous works. It should be mentioned that he and his librettist Boito had thought at one point to title the piece Iago, to specifically distinguish it from Rossini’s Otello.

Lithuanian dramatic tenor Kristian Benedikt, playing Otello, was flanked by soprano Valeria Sepe, who sang Desdemona, and baritone Nikoloz Lagvilava, who was Iago, all under the baton of the fiery maestro Marcianó. Benedikt’s large, strong voice, well suited to Otello’s character, fully inhabited the role, portraying him beautifully right from the start with the thunderous “Esultate!” Georgian baritone, Nikoloz Lagvilava won the biggest ovation of the night for his Iago. His warm, textured voice was even and suitably outlandish throughout its range. He sang with unforced power and shaped his phrases with supple legato. His rendition of “Credo in Dio crude” was deeply expressive, and the confrontation of Benedikt and Lagvilava, one of the great moments of this opera, was glorious. The two men fraternized and manipulated each other, becoming obsessively jealous the better to hate one another. In the powerful duet “Si per ciel,” each displayed a pronounced individuality and intensity. It was brilliant and the house broke into loud applause. The orchestra and the other singers were also superb.

As Desdemona, Sepe delivered a beautiful performance with a perfectly controlled line, convincingly embodied emotions, a crisp pronunciation and flawless high notes. Dressed in a seductive black gown, she projected consistency in the lower register. She was stunning in the mournful “Willow Song,” lamenting her lost love and also expressing her anxiety about Otello’s wrongful anger over her supposed infidelity. When she sang “Ave Maria, piena di grazie” asking for divine guidance to protect her – immediately after which she is killed by Otello – her luscious voice had just enough of an earthy tinge and texture to balance the shimmer of her singing. Desdemona’s maid Emilia in both Otellos was mezzo-soprano Sophie Goldbrick. Her creamy lyricism, technical flexibility and interpretative acuity make her a consummate performer. The evening was a complete operatic immersion, and what a treat is was!

ROSSINI – Otello
Hye-Youn Lee, soprano (Desdemona)
Sophie Goldrick, mezzo soprano (Emilia)
Jin Min Park, tenor (Otello)
Bechara Moufarej, tenor (Iago)
Sergey Romanovsky, tenor (Rodrigo)

VERDI – Otello
Valerie Sepe, soprano (Desdemona)
Sophie Goldbrick, mezzo soprano (Emilia)
Kristian Benedikt, tenor (Otello)
Nikoloz Lagvilava, baritone (Iago)

Conductor: Gianluca Marcianó
The Al Bustan Festival Orchestra