Otello, Royal Opera House London, February 2000

Otello, Royal Opera House, London
By Rodney Milnes, The Times 2 February 2000

NO, NOT Verdi's and certainly not Shakespeare's. Rossini's Otello has
had a bad press in this country since Byron slagged it off in a letter
from Venice in 1818: "They have been crucifying Othello into an opera."
Yes, the handkerchief becomes an intercepted love letter, the Moor stabs
Desdemona instead of smothering her and Rodrigo is bumped up into a
character as prominent as the protagonist, a rival for the hand of a
Desdemona who is secretly betrothed to Otello rather than married to
him. Iago doesn't even get an aria.

Even Rossini enthusiasts admit that not all the music in the earlier
acts shows him at his best, though this aristocrat among composers was
incapable of writing notes that were less than graceful and civilised in
the broadest sense. But the good bits are very good indeed, with many a
pointer to later operas - the Otello-Iago letter duet is Rigoletto's
Vendetta in more than embryo - and the third act is top-drawer Rossini
throughout. I would argue that his treatment of Desdemona's Willow Song
is far more imaginative than Verdi's. And this Otello was a sensation at
a time when operas had to end happily, and it held its own until Verdi
swept it aside.

So Rossini's Otello needs doing, occasionally, and I cannot imagine it
being better done than it is by the Royal Opera. It has sensibly
borrowed Pier Luigi Pizzi's handsome production from Pesaro: Renaissance
sets and costumes, discreet "operatic" direction - this Rossini would
not repay deconstruction. And given that the Naples company for whom
Rossini wrote it in 1816 had more tenors on the roster than you could
shake a stick at - you need five! - they have assembled a dream cast.

Bruce Ford has made the enigmatic title role his own. It is enigmatic in
that it almost sounds as if you need a baritone (it goes very low), but
one who can fling off top Cs as well. All this Ford can do with ease,
and he was in exceptionally warm, strong voice on Monday.

Rodrigo is a more conventional Rossini tenor role - ie, high and
florid - and Ford's Pesaro colleague Juan Diego Flórez was simply
sensational, every note in even the most intricate piece of coloratura
knitting securely voiced. These two hurling defiance and top notes at
each other is the stuff of which opera is made, or used to be.

Mariella Devia is an impeccable stylist and technician with a most
beautiful voice: her Desdemona was one long, limpid stream of vocal
delight. And so on: the tenor Octavio Arévalo turned Iago into a major
role through sheer gumption and a bass of Alastair Miles's stature was
engaged for the small role of Desdemona's father: he was superb. Timothy
Robinson sang the Gondolier's offstage song with Rossinian grace.

The wise, unobtrusive conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti gave his singers
every support while granting the score its full dramatic weight. A great
(c) Times Newspapers Ltd.

Rodrigo is Juan to note
by Tom Sutcliffe, The Evening Standard, 1 February 2000

Rossini seems well served by the Royal Opera's staging of his Otello,
borrowed from the festival at Pesaro, his birthplace. Pier Luigi Pizzi's
production is dignified, efficient and wooden. But the work to such an
extent lacks real feeling - except for the most unusual Willow Song
Desdemona sings in the last act, and the equally atmospheric offstage
ditty from Dante's Inferno which precedes it - that higher ambitions
would be futile.

Bruce Ford and Mariella Devia do Othello and Desdemona in a stuttering
performance of Otello

It was perhaps unfortunate that Juan Diego Florez, in the second tenor
role of Rodrigo, stole the show. Yet this young Peruvian absolutely
justified his tidal wave of applause at the end. Bruce Ford as Otello
sings in too arty, self-conscious a fashion, every phrase carefully
modulated as if one should take seriously either the music or the
theatricality of this somewhat crass historical oddity.

The prime requirement for such mechanical yet elegant music, mostly
devoid of convincing individual personality, is fresh, clear open tenor
singing - a sense of guts and thrilling attack. Rossini's Rodrigo is not
Shakespeare's. He's just a decent stock Italian operatic figure in love
with the wrong dame, and without even the neurotic streaks of Verdi's

Florez catches Rodrigo's combative instinct and endows the role with
attractive authenticity. He proved his courage at Pesaro in 1996,
stepping - at a day's notice - out of the chorus and into the lead role
(and international stardom) in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran, a yet more
absurd work. His voice has charisma and warmth. He acts with passion,
even in Rossini tragedy.

Rossini's Otello isn't awful just because it's not Shakespeare, though
anybody who cares about poetry and drama must share Byron's indignation.
Wagner rightly indicted Rossini for ignoring the dramatic content in his
writing of arias and for not reading into them any dramatically
consistent meaning.

That's certainly not a problem in the Barber or Rossini's wonderful
comedies. Yet Desdemona's prayer is indeed beautiful but vapid, her
final fatal encounter with Otello infuriatingly undramatic. As
Desdemona, Mariella Devia's voice fortunately softened by the last act,
and she met her challenges with taste and refinement - though her timbre
is not particularly attractive.

Octavio Arevalo leered too comically as Iago (also a tenor), having
instantaneously convinced Otello with a letter. Alastair Miles as
Desdemona's father Elmiro, and Leah-Marian Jones as Emilia gave strong
support. Gianluigi Gelmetti's laid-back conducting was rewarded with
ravishing instrumental playing in the pit.

(c) Associated Newspapers Ltd.

More deaths in Venice
By Michael White, The Independent, 7 February 2000

As technophobia seeps into the culture of the Royal Opera - along with
too many cancelled performances and the prospect of more when the House
revives its gadget-driven Flying Dutchman next month - no chances have
been taken with the new Otello that opened on Monday. The scene changes
are done by hand. And in any case, there's not much to change in this
ultra-safe, ultra-staid and ultra-dull production bought in from the
Pesaro Festival in Italy.

Directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi without a glimmer of life, it limps through
Pizzi's own designs of faded pastel against pale-lit grey after the
manner of a Veronese painting. The music limps too, at the hands of a
conductor, Gianluigi Gelmetti, who comes with good Italian credentials
but nothing to show for them here. All of which is a shame, because the
Garden has pulled together some good singers for it. And the piece
itself is interesting in that it's not the Verdi Otello everybody knows
but the earlier, Rossini one which lives in Verdi's shadow and is a good
example of why operatic assaults on Shakespeare get a bad press. Where
Verdi fine-tunes the plot, Rossini reinvents it. (In a later version,
reworked for a production in Rome where the Vatican authorities
disapproved of onstage suicide, Rossini even sanctioned an alternative
happy ending that has Otello succumb to reason, a reconciliation duet,
and a rousing chorus to bring down the curtain. If you're curious to
know how it sounded, there's a new recording out on Opera Rara which
shows you.) But even following the letter of Rossini's original text
takes you a long way from the Bard. Set in Venice, Otello is no more
than secretly betrothed to Desdemona, and in open competition for her
hand with Rodrigo - who accordingly becomes Otello's chief foil, ousting
Iago's prominence. The lost handkerchief is replaced by an ambiguously
intentioned love-note. And if all this seems like literary rape, it does
actually work and furnishes Otello with better grounds for suspicion
than he gets from Shakespeare. The problem is that it comes in a stiff
and stilted libretto that squanders its invention on stale words.

As for the music, Otello dates from a time when Rossini was at the
height of his powers, between the Barber of Seville and Cenerentola. So
it's good. And the third act is more than good, with a Willow Song that
bears comparison with Verdi's for its memorably affecting pathos. The
pity is that Mariella Devia's Desdemona delivers it in such a reedily
unlovely tone, although the voice is capable and strong. Her maid Emilia
is sung by Leah-Marian Jones more beautifully.

But the vocal focus of this opera falls on the men and they are mostly
tenors. Iago is not a big role, so Octavio Arevalo had little to do here
except loiter in the shadows and peer with pantomime exaggeration around
classical columns. Bruce Ford's Otello is as stylish and secure as you'd
expect from a Rossini specialist. But the star of the evening is the
Rodrigo of a young Peruvian tenor I've admired at Wexford and already
noted here as a rising talent, Juan Diego Florez. It's a slightly
raw-cut voice, in need of polish at the outer edges, but the sound is
handsome, with a lean agility. Monday's audience adored him. Too bad
Desdemona doesn't follow suit. If there was ever an Otello where she
picks the wrong man, this is it.

(c) The Independent

Tale of three tenors
By Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 2 February 2000

Rossini's Otello, premiered in Naples in 1816, is an opera with a
notorious reputation: the libretto is a grotesque distortion of
Shakespeare; the opera is twaddle when put beside Verdi's much later
version; and it requires no fewer than three star tenors (plus the best
soprano you can find), all of whom have to sing some of the most
impossibly gruelling music ever written.

The revelation of the Royal Opera's new production, however, is that
most of the charges flung at the opera are erroneous. Shakespeare is not
so much travestied as cogently distilled along neoclassical lines -
aptly so for a composer who, though regarded as a Romantic, was largely
drawn to the theatre of Voltaire and Racine. As for the three tenors,
Covent Garden has unquestionably found them - and boy can they sing.

Glamorisation of the tenor voice was what both Verdi and Rossini were
about when it came to giving the Moor of Venice musical flesh, but where
Verdi demands clarion lung power, Rossini lets his Otello seduce,
enchant and rave over the fearsome extreme of two-and-a-half octaves.
Bruce Ford negotiates this terrifying range with consummate ease and
minimal showiness, underpinning his vocalism with a sense of volcanic

It's a strong performance, but he's not ultimately the star of the show.
Pride of place goes to the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez. He's cast
as Rodrigo, a conflation of Cassio and his Shakespearian namesake.
Rossini endows the object of Otello's jealously with a vocal allure and
prowess that exceed his own. The tessitura is implacably high, the
coloratura treacherous. Florez spins it out with a staggering perfection
of tone. A very great tenor has finally arrived. Octavio Arevalo's Iago
completes the triumvirate. His music is less florid, its punchy
simplicity an apt catalyst for his victims' spectacular emotionalism.
Arevalo is impressive, reedily serpentine, a nasty piece of work.

Hearing this trio in action is imperative, but you have to put up with
inequalities elsewhere. Mariella Devia's Desdemona isn't in their
league. A once great bel canto singer, she's now past her best. Her
phrasing remains unfailingly sensitive, but the tone is acidic. An
ill-judged, interpolated top note in the act two finale was a horrid
shriek, as if someone had put electrodes on her. The conductor,
Gianluigo Gelmetti, is elegantly refined, but rarely intense enough. The
production, by Pier Luigi Pizzi, badly misjudges the piece. Rossini
keeps the action in Venice throughout, though the libretto,
incorporating quotes from Dante, aligns the city's concentric canals
with the circles of the Inferno and reminds us that this is a drama of
lost souls played out on the brink of an abyss. Venice and Hell are both
conspicuous by their absence, however. All we get is a series of insipid
tableaux vivants against a backdrop of monotonous grey colonnades.
Rossini - and those three glorious tenors - deserve something better.

(c) Guardian Newspapers Limited


The season planned for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House was
certainly too ambitious, but at least some of the risks are paying off.
The return of Rossini's Otello nearly 150 years after its last
performance in the theatre is an event worth celebrating.

Of course, there are good reasons why it was absent for so long. We have
Verdi's Otello these days, a mightier opera by far, as well as the
original Shakespeare. Whichever way comparisons are made, Rossini comes
out the clear loser. Even his most fervent admirers have to admit that.

And yet - watching Monday's performance did not engender a feeling of
let-down. The first half of the opera may wander too far from
Shakespeare for its own good - why choose such a powerful play if only
to reduce it to the standard operatic formulas? - but even there,
Rossini hits upon some stirring numbers, like the duet for Otello and
Iago. And the third act is so atmospheric, so rich in music, that it
counts as a masterly piece of dramatic composition in its own right.

In two crucial respects - the staging and the conducting - the Royal
Opera production is pretty half-hearted. The production, another of the
rent-an-operas that mark this opening season, has been borrowed from the
Pesaro Festival. It dates from 1988 and presents Pier Luigi Pizzi
doubling as producer and designer.

In neither role does he like to upset his audiences with any surprises.
His fondness for velvet curtains and costumes may have abated this time,
but the marble columns and staircases are in the same places they always
are. The production is typically chilly and formal, pleasing to the eye
in its use of colour and perspective, but hardly inspiring the heart to
beat much faster.

In the pit Gianluigi Gelmetti directs a laid-back performance of
Rossini's unfairly neglected score. He finds time to shape the music
with admirable naturalness, encouraging the excellent wind players in
the orchestra to sparkle, but is reluctant to get excited when the
adrenalin level should be rising. A conductor with a keener sense of
drama would show him a clean pair of heels.

There is one more reason why this Otello fell from favour after the
1870s: it was here that Rossini invented "the three tenors", long before
the television cameras ever started to roll. Not only the title role,
but also the roles of Iago and Rodrigo are written for tenors, and very
high ones at that. Until a few years ago there simply were not enough
singers who could manage them.

Now we have a choice and all three of the tenors on Monday were well up
to the task. In the title role, Bruce Ford was suitably tragic and
dignified, as well as singing without forcing his tone. This is the
crowning role for a light Italianate tenor - and not only for them, as
one of the most celebrated sopranos of Rossini's day, Giuditta Pasta,
decided it looked such fun that she sang it herself.

As Rodrigo, his rival in love, Juan Diego Florez sang with splendid
flair: clear words, well-practised coloratura, and a vivid Latin tone
that is bursting with life. Octavio Aravalo, the third of the tenors,
made what he could of the much-reduced role of Iago and sang cleanly.
Alastair Miles was Elmiro and Leah-Marian Jones brought a quality voice
to the supporting role of Emilia.

Last, but certainly not least, there was an exemplary display of Rossini
singing from Mariella Devia as Desdemona. It is hard to think of any
other soprano today who could bring to this music such a naturally
Italian sense of style, with taut long arcs of phrasing and delicately
shaded half-tones. For the duration of her (and Rossini's) haunting
Willow Song, even Verdi and Shakespeare were temporarily forgotten.

This page last updated 30 April 2001