A special 'Otello',
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Otello has a special place in Verdi's production. The composer was seventy-five years old when the opera was unveiled at La Scala with tremendous success. This last work, separated from the others by a long time gap, was an attempt to break with the past in an effort to compose a new, more modern, concept of music drama: a more fluid type of opera, closer to prose drama in its willingness to admit a swift succession of emotional attitudes during a series of dramatic confrontations. Otello is not an easy opera to stage. Most recently, I reviewed for this magazine two very different approaches: the productions in Bucharest and Verona ('Gripping and Engrossing', 12 September 2013 and 'Brilliant Ideas', 24 November 2013). In both these reviews, I emphasized how difficult it is to have the two tenors required, respectively for the title role (a 'heroic tenor' bordering on a Wagnerian vocal register) and for the part of Cassio (a lyric tenor, with nearly a Donizetti timbre), a soprano both lyric and dramatic (as in La traviata), a baritone at the top of Verdi's expression, a double chorus and a conductor (as well as an orchestra) with the capacity for symphonic fluidity in a drama where there is only 'action' — no longer the customary Italian patterned juxtaposition between 'action' and 'reflection'.
Two major Italian opera houses, Teatro Massimo of Palermo and Teatro San Carlo of Naples, joined resources for a new production which opened in the Sicilian capital on 21 February 2014. This review is based on that performance. The production will go to Naples and will be shown worldwide in HD movie houses. The intention is to compare well with the Metropolitan Opera HD Otello which inaugurated the 2012-13 'international season' of the New York main opera house. The Met production featured the highly traditional 1994 Elijah Moshinsky staging, Johan Botha in the title role, Renée Fleming as Desdemona and Semyon Bychkov in the pit (Passionate Acting, 3 November 2012).
The Palermo-Naples production is quite different from that at the Met, and especially in the staging. It is not as radical as that recently seen in Bucharest (where the action was in an immigration camp of the present day). In Henning Brockhaus' concept (stage sets by Nicola Rubertelli and costumes by Patricia Toffolutti), even though the principals are in Renaissance attire, none of the others wear clearly specified costumes, time wise. It is clear that in Cyprus there has been a war (maybe a Balkan conflict); there are signs of semi-destroyed buildings. Also the populace and the military garrison seem to indulge in rather desperate orgies; young Cassio (Giuseppe Varano) appears a specialist in a large gamut of sexual positions. Within this context, the devilish Jago (Giovanni Meoni) can build his evil plot. Both Otello (Gustavo Porta) and Desdemona (Julianna Di Giacomo) — as well as Jago's wife Emilia (Anna Malavasi) fall into the trap.
The staging is, no doubt, a strong point of the production — which in Naples and in the HD showing will be simplified and tamed in the orgy scene. The drama evolves almost as in a black-and-white war destruction movie. This makes it quite powerful. However, the huge stage sets entail two intermissions (rather than only one, as now customary), and this slows the tension.
Other significant aspects are the orchestra (conducted by Renato Palumbo) and the choruses (directed by Pietro Monti and Salvatore Punturo). The orchestra shows the 'modernity' of this late Verdi work clearly addressed to the future. The choruses were excellent protagonists of the first part of Act I and of the sweeping Act III concertato.
Julianna Di Giacomo is a perfect Desdemona, a role she has often sung both in her native United States and in Europe. She is passionate in the Act I duet and moving in the Act IV Willow Song and Ave Maria. Next to her Anna Malavasi was an effective Emilia.
On the opening night there were some troubles with the men's voices. Only Giovanni Meoni seemed to fully fit his role (Jago). Although he has handled Otello's impervious singing several times, the argentine Gustavo Porta was in severe difficulties with his opening short aria, Esultate!, and he could not handle well the phrasing and the mezza voce in the duet. It is fair to say that Gustavo Porta improved as the performance went on and delivered a quite good Niun mi tema in Act IV. Giuseppe Varano is good looking and acts well as Cassio, but on 21 February he was short in volume and monotonous in voice. In April (the HD worldwide live performance), Marco Berti will be Otello and Alessandro Liberatore Cassio.