OPERA NEWS - Otello
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In Review > International

Otello

MILAN
Teatro alla Scala
7/7/15

In Review La Scala Otello hdl 1015
Kunde, Peretyatko and Flórez in Rossini’s Otello in Milan
© Matthias Baus

JÜRGEN FLIMM'S NEW STAGING of Rossini’s Otello (featuring some interesting costumes by Ursula Kudrna) was the first production of this once-popular drammapermusica at La Scala since 1870; during the first two acts of the performance on July 7 the reasons for its prolonged absence from the repertoire were entirely evident. Francesco Berio di Salsa’s words and Rossini’s music simply failed to generate much theatrical momentum, in spite of a cast of proven proficiency. Act III, on the other hand, appeared so consistently remarkable in its musical inspiration that it compensated more than a little for the rudderless beginning. 

This aesthetic imbalance is by no means inevitable — as Pier Luigi Pizzi’s deeply satisfying production at the Rossini Opera Festival in the 1980s and ’90s made clear — but in the first two acts it is very much up to the singers to lend coherence and direction to the characters delineated. At La Scala only Juan Diego Flórez, as Rodrigo, achieved this aim, making much of the role of the spurned (but ultimately forgiving) lover. And his superiority as a singer was demonstrated during the Act I finale, where his shaping of the solo lines “Incerta l’anima vacilla e geme” — sung in turn by each of the leading characters — easily surpassed the efforts of the other singers. Flórez’s vision of the character has mellowed since his role debut eight years ago, and the formidably difficult Act II aria — “Ah! come mai non senti” — was even more poised than before in both legato lyricism and rapid divisions. His ascents to the highest register lack perhaps the insouciant ease of his earlier years, but he had no difficulty in holding his own in the stratospheric duel with Gregory Kunde’s Otello later in the act. 

The upper octave is the best part of Kunde’s instrument and has lost none of its ring and punch. In the lower octave, and at lower dynamic levels, the voice showed its age more than it does in the Verdi roles (including Otello) the American tenor has taken on in recent years. He sang and acted with unfailing dignity but failed to arouse much interest in the character. There are three other significant tenor roles in Rossini’s opera: Nicola Pamio and Sehoon Moon performed persuasively as the elderly Doge and a very young Gondoliere, while Edgardo Rocha proved a vocally competent but hardly insinuating Jago.

Olga Peretyatko (Desdemona), like Kunde and Flórez, made her debut in this opera in Pesaro in 2007. Since then she has consolidated her mastery of florid singing (trills included), which is often impressive in its accuracy and not unpleasing in tone. The highpoint of her performance was the willow song, sung in a gondola with a harpist onstage to accompany her, where the melodic line was sustained in a mezza voce of real beauty and intensity. She is not, however, a warmly expressive performer — either in phrasing or in gesture. When she darkens the vowels artificially in order to simulate a more “dramatic” sound in the middle register, the emotional impact of the words is blunted. This was evident right from the opening duet alongside the Emilia of Annalisa Stroppa, who proved more amiably direct in expression. 

Most of the action apparently took place in the mid-nineteenth century, although there were visual references to earlier and later epochs. The backdrop, designed by Flimm and reportedly inspired by conversations with the painter Anselm Kiefer, was a simple gray curtain. The devised action proved fairly successful in bringing each musical “number” into focus (faces were generally well-lit, and the action was unfussy), but it failed overall to lend the opera the dramaturgical continuity it begs for. In an interview, Flimm declared that the dominant theme of his production was racial prejudice, but this concept simply didn’t register with the audience, partly because Kunde was not made up as a North African. 

The conductor Muhai Tang, who had led some very successful performances of Rossini’s opera in Zurich in 2012, won little applause, and some audible disapproval, from the Scala audience. This is hard to explain, for his phrasing was supple and undemonstratively alert from the overture onwards (there was some colorful solo playing from the Scala Orchestra), and his phrasing was closely attuned to the needs of the singers he was accompanying. Stephen Hastings 

 

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