Otello, Christmas for Easter on the Champs Elysées

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Absent from Paris operas for nearly twenty years – aside from an annual recital featuring exorbitant ticket prices – the theatrical Bartoli was awaited as impatiently as if she had been Christmas Eve. The prospect was especially exciting because it was an opera by Rossini, one of her favourite composers, whom the singer had chosen to celebrate her reunion with the French public. In fact, two years after a very acclamed passage at the Zurich Opera, the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées welcomed her into a long-awaited production of Otello by Rossini.


Unfairly booed on the evening of the Paris premiere, the spare staging by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier transports us to the 1960s, in a  world similar to a colonial administration in decline. The austere sets by Christian Fenouillat give the impression of being something of a crisis production.
The only interesting choice was the subtle highlighting of the ambient racism, a concept absent in Verdi’s Otello but very much present in the libretto by Francesco Bersio di Salsa for Rossini’s opera. While the value of this staging is entirely relative, the interpretation of the work does not interfere with listening to the music and respects the text : not really interesting, but “not disturbing,” as it was summed up during the intermission.


In the orchestra pit, the musicians of the Ensemble Matheus were disappointing. The period instruments are very unforgiving, and the wind solos – although well served by this score – are unfortunately often riddled with false notes, and the virtuoso passages lack precision. Not surprisingly, conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi has a nervous arm. While he supports the vocal ensembles quite well, he overplays the mischief and irony of Rossini’s writing, exaggerating the nuances and silences and not letting the music breathe. Yet the music is naturally contrasting, now martial, now mocking, constantly wavering between jest and drama.


The value of this production clearly lies in the vocal casting. And the blend of voices proves rather felicitous in this opera, which features many sublime duos and trios. In the role of Elmiro, Desdemona’s father, baritone Peter Kalman, the only serious voice in this opera for tenors – five tenors out of eight roles! – reveals a lovely depth in the interpretation and a fine phrasing. Liliana Nikiteanu who sings Emilia, the anxious handmaiden, although somewhat resonant compared with the rest of the singers, offers a warm voice and a reassuring stage presence. Barry Banks (Iago) plays the role of the determined felon with great accuracy. Blessed with a technique well adapted to Rossini’s lines, his sharps are somewhat strident, but the tone is clear and the voice powerful. Another tenor in the cast, Edgardo Rocha (Rodrigo), the rejected lover, lacks some projection and singing agility. He sometimes seems to falter in the face of Rossini’s imposing writing, but the shadings are well controlled, the acting is right and he proves quite tough in the duets/duels with Otello in Act II, an Otello played by John Osborn. His physical commitment is more than limited, verging on softness, but the tone is lovely, the low registers well rounded and the sharps daring. He is very moving; his strengths are his great musicality and his almost Mozartian phrasing, coupled with great ease in his vocalising. Almost up to his Desdemona.


Almost because Desdemona is the great Cecilia Bartoli. In an elegant black dress that gives her the silhouette of an Italian actress, she appears in the fourth scene and eclipses the rest of the cast. Right from her first duet with Emilia, she wins over the audience with a one-in-a-thousand voice, enhancing her carefully controlled shading. Technically impeccable and showing incredible virtuosity in the finale of Act II, she is nonetheless most striking in the less virtuoso arias. The mezzo catches us with each nuance, surprises us with each phrase. Especially overwhelming in the final act, her interpretation of the famous willow aria is extremely elegant, following a score seasoned only with a few notes from the harp.

At the foot of the fir tree, the patient twenty-year wait to rediscover such a gift was not disappointing.

Albina Belabiod

 

Pictures by Vincent Pontet / WikiSpectacle - Théâtre des Champs-Elysées

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