Bartoli, Nikiteanu; Osborn, Camarena, Rocha, Kálmán; Zurich Opera Supplementary Chorus, Orchestra La Scintilla, Tang. Production: Leiser and Caurier. Decca 074 3863, 156 mins., subtitled
Just a few months back, there'd have been no disputing who was the big selling point of these Decca DVDs: it would have been Cecilia Bartoli, in her two most recent Rossini assumptions. What a difference a March and April at the Met can make! A pair of wildly acclaimed tenorial turns (one scheduled, one not) hoisted Javier Camarena into the headlines, when he — I don't want to say "stole"; let's say "temporarily borrowed" the shows from two well-established Met favorites, Diana Damrau, in La Sonnambula,and Joyce DiDonato, in La Cenerentola.
These two DVDs offer ample evidence of Camarena's capital Rossinian credentials, tragic and comic. Recorded at Zurich's Opera House on New Year's Eve 2011 (Ory) and in March 2012 (Otello), they're a fine display of his range as a singer and an actor — and they're also excellent, theatrically vibrant performances of the two marvelous operas at hand. They share not just Bartoli and Camarena but the directing duo Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier (the prima donna's recent favorites, it seems, with Clari, Giulio Cesare and Norma to their joint credit) and conductor Muhai Tang, stylishly leading Zurich Opera's period band, La Scintilla. The ensemble, as ever, lives up to its name, its nimble wind players in particularly scintillating form. Leiser and Caurier update both operas to the mid-twentieth century, albeit rather imprecisely: I'm not sure at which war's end their Ory happens, World War II or the Algerian; and their Otello could be unfolding anywhere from the early '60s to the late '70s. (Agostino Cavalca's grab-bag of costumes don't help clarify the period — in Ory,bobby-soxers share a stage with a Count in a marijuana T-shirt — and little about Christian Fenouillat's very handsome sets really does, either.)
More important, though, this practiced production team brings out the best in these two very different operas, and in the singers enacting them. In Otello,they work through the sometimes incongruously jolly-sounding music (listen to the end of the Act II Otello–Desdemona–Rodrigo trio, with its classic "Rossini crescendo") and play the drama for keeps, with strong doses of racism and, for Desdemona, of proto-feminist filial defiance. John Osborn's Otello, keen-toned and commanding, looks the part to near perfection and acts with focused intensity. Rossini's Rodrigo is a composite of Shakespeare's Roderigo and Cassio — conniving with Iago like the one, fueling Otello's jealousy like the other. He's sincerely in love with Desdemona, and in his Act II aria, after he is told that she's secretly married to the Moor, Camarena pours out his grief first in hushed, honeyed cantilena, then in torrents of anguished fioritura. Compared with Juan Diego Flórez's rendition on CD, Camarena's is a warmer, rounder (if less incisive) sound and scales down more alluringly. Later in the act, he and Osborn trade combative high Cs and Ds (and a little of Osborn's makeup) as they square off head-to-head in a display of tenorial prowess that, back when I was discovering Rossini, would have astonished operagoers. It's still pretty thrilling now.
Behaving like a greedy child unleashed in a pasticceria, Edgardo Rocha employs his boyish mien and sweet tenor to make Iago's villainy all the more potent. Peter Kálmán's bass-baritone sounds better fitted for buffo roles, but dramatically he's suitably obdurate as Elmiro, Desdemona's father. As for our prima donna, all the familiar virtues (the warm, supple voice; the temperamental alacrity) and quirks (the puffed-up tone, the idiosyncratic articulation) are on display. She's not flattered by her little black dress, or by close-ups of her bugging eyes; once again, she seems to me not a tragedienne by nature — a disaffinity that isn't mitigated by her directors at the end of Act II, where she grabs a beer from the fridge, jumps on a pool table and empties the bottle on her head. But she delivers her Verdi-prescient willow song and preghiera affectingly and fairly simply and rises bravely to her fatal showdown with Otello.
Still, she seems more felicitously cast in Ory, even though she's singing a role written for, and conventionally assigned to, a high soprano. She manages the tessitura adroitly and masticates with relish every comic morsel thrown her way, as in Act I when she morphs (inside Ory's hilariously garish love-shack trailer) from bespectacled spinster to unbuttoned amante. And Camarena's Ory, wonderfully and gracefully sung, is a comic marvel, a rubber-faced operatic Jonathan Winters whose oleaginous antics offer endless delight. But everyone plays the show to the hilt, even when the singing can't match that of the two stars. Balancing the darker-toned Bartoli is a piping light soprano, Rebeca Olvera, as Isolier, charming in her French Army getup as she puffs on her strangely smokeless cigarettes; and as the addled Gouverneur, Ugo Guagliardo looks too young but sounds just fine. Oliver Widmer, the dry-voiced Raimbaud, is much more fun to watch than to hear. Liliana Nikiteanu (a sturdy Emilia in Otello) is very funny, too, as Ragonde: one of the production's most delicious moments is hers, as the excitement-starved ladies of Countess Adele's entourage breathlessly watch her thread a needle. But there are many such joys in Leiser and Caurier's staging, which I much prefer to Bartlett Sher's gimmicky, excessively busy one for the Met, on DVD via Virgin (though Sher boasts easily the more enticing supporting cast). The illustrious Rossini scholar Philip Gossett famously scolded the Met for not using Damien Colas's new critical edition of the score; no such chiding is warranted here. For both operas, sound and picture are crystal-clear.
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