Fresh off the back of his charming survey of mid-century Australia in the hit film Ladies in Black, the legendary Bruce Beresford has turned his attentions to quite a different kettle of fish with Melbourne Opera’s new production of Otello. Not Verdi’s Otello, long regarded as one of the finest works in the entire operatic canon, but the bel canto extravaganza that is Rossini’s earlier, 1816 take on the story of Otello and Desdemona. And if you’re scratching your head, never fear, as this is the first time Australians will see a staged version of the work on our shores, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Rossini’s death.

Bruce Beresford in rehearsal for Otello. Photo © Robin Halls

It’s certainly existed on the edges of the repertoire, but recent bel canto revivalists have brought it closer to the centre. All opera seria by these 19th century masters are difficult to stage, and this Otello is no exception – it requires six, yes six Rossini tenors, a seemingly ludicrous ask when audiences would be lucky to behold one and a half adequate ones on any given night. And that’s not to mention the need for a top-shelf singer as Desdemona, a role originated by none other than the awe-inspiring Isabella Colbran. And on top of that, Otello also comes trailing a slightly spotty reputation, given its performing tradition – as late as 1820, censors demanded a happy ending, so Rossini proffered up a version where, spoiler alert, Otello and Desdemona work things out – and the words of one Lord Byron: “They have been crucifying Othello into an opera”. An unkind pronouncement given the quality of the music, but not entirely unjustified given said happy ending.

However, and thankfully, Melbourne Opera is presenting Rossini’s original and preferred version, where Desdemona does indeed meet her doom and there is a surer sense of drama throughout. Happily, Beresford is a fan of the work, having encountered it early on in his opera career.

Manuel Garcia as Otello for the Théâtre Italien, 1821, the second tenor to take on the title role

“I saw a production of it at New York City Opera about 30 years ago, and I thought it was fabulous,” he says. “But I thought oh well, they probably do it quite a lot and that was that. But then I found out companies actually don’t so when Melbourne Opera called me and asked if I’d be interested in doing an opera and I said what about Rossini’s Otello, it was only then that I’d found out that it had never actually been done in Australia. Astonishing.”

Whereas Verdi and his celebrated librettist Arrigo Boito plundered Shakespeare’s play for their opera, Rossini and his wordsmith Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa looked further afield. Shakespeare was one inspiration, but so were two earlier versions of the Otello and Desdemona story, the primary one being Jean François Ducis’ play, Othello ou le More de Venise. Consequently, there are many differences, including the change of setting from Cyprus to Venice, the expansion of the character Rodrigo, the exchange of the fateful handkerchief with a billet-doux, and the depiction of Iago as yet another character carrying a torch for Desdemona.

These differences don’t faze Beresford however, the director adamant that Berio’s libretto gives increased substance to the characters of Iago and Rodrigo. He’s particularly interested in the sexual jealousy that arises from the former’s unrequited feelings towards Desdemona, adding yet another motivating factor to his machinations.

Stephen Smith, Boyd Owen, Dimity Shepherd and Elena Xanthoudakis in rehearsal. Photo © Robin Halls

“Rossini and his librettist built some very good conflict into the plot,” he says. “It’s still a bel canto opera with a lot of the characteristics of the genre, but the libretto is quite skilled and adds depth to these characters with a fair degree of skill. There’s just a bit of recitative where Iago gives away that he once thought he’d be a good husband for Desdemona, just a moment, and I said to the tenor, Henry Choo, you must emphasis it because this unlocks so much of Iago’s motivations. Not only does he think Otello is gathering too much power, and that he’s an interloper because he’s a black man, but he’s also in love with this woman who’s now married his enemy.”

The character of Othello is always difficult to come to terms with in any adaptation of the work, particularly so with Rossini’s opera, given its greater emphasis on an expanded list of leading men. Considering the potent backstory allotted to Iago, and to Rodrigo, another rival for Desdemona’s love, the title character can get somewhat lost in the mix. Beresford is again undaunted, clear-eyed about the kind of Otello he wishes to present onstage.

“I’ve got him [Stephen Smith] dressed as a soldier,” he explains. “In the opening scene he comes back from a naval victory over the Turks, and he enters the Doge’s palace and they’re all in finery. I make it very clear that he’s a fighting man who is cruelly manipulated by Iago and Elmiro [Desdemona’s father], and ultimately you feel sorry for him because fundamentally he is a very decent, straightforward sort of guy unused to these political games. Unfortunately, he is insecure enough to succumb to their schemes, and Desdemona’s death scene is the culmination of all that.”

Stephen Smith and Elena Xanthoudakis in rehearsal. Photo © Robin Halls 

For his leading lady, Beresford says he is blessed with soprano Elena Xanthoudakis, returning to Melbourne Opera after star turns in the title roles of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena. “She’s fantastic. What a voice. She’s got a very good stage sense and during long arias she’s great at just listening and reacting moment by moment to what’s being said. That’s allowed me to really get her to play her death very forcefully. I didn’t want her to be a shrinking violet. I said you’ve got to fight back and say to him, you’ve got it completely wrong, I’m not in love with these others, I’m in love with you. Don’t be cowering.”

The director has enjoyed his time in the rehearsal room, praising his cast for their can-do attitude. Above all, he says, he wants them to relate to one another and wring every bit of drama out of what could be just another static bel canto opera.

“I really don’t like it when characters walk to the front of the stage and sing,” he readily admits. “I’m trying to make sure every movement is integrated into their realisation of the character and the conflict. I say to them, you must listen to each other. It’s like you’ve never heard this story before. In life, we don’t know what other people are going to say and it must look like that onstage. Only then does it become truly engaging.”

Bruce Beresford. Photo © Robin Halls

With our conversation drawing to a close, I ask that thorniest of questions a journalist can ask of an opera director – when and where are you setting the action? But Beresford takes it in his stride, and says “I wanted to set it where it’s meant to be, in Venice.”

“I thought, well, if it’s never been done in Australia at all, it’s silly to put it in Nazi Germany or Cuba. I’ve taken the impetus for the sets and costumes from the clothing and architecture of the time, and I think really what Rossini presents is of its time so updating it can be very awkward.”

Finally, what does he hope Australian audiences will take away from this long overdue premiere?

“I just hope that audiences realise that the Verdi Otello is not the only one!” he says. “That this is a very considerable work. It’s got wonderful music, great melodies, and the complexity of the vocal writing is just amazing. When I saw this production in New York ages ago, I remember thinking wow, this is a great opera.”

Melbourne Opera’s Otello is at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 17 – 27