October 17, 2018
All but forgotten after Verdi tackled Shakespeare’s Othello to much acclaim in 1887, Rossini’s earlier interpretation is only now making its Australian premiere. Adding to the anticipation of this, Melbourne Opera’s 2018 finale, was having renowned film and opera director Bruce Beresford at the production’s helm. However, the libretto’s English translation only emphasises the absence of what made Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s adaptation dramatically powerful, and puts a sometimes shaky cast on the back foot.
First performed in Naples in 1816, Rossini’s Otello is set in Venice, where the eponymous, African-born general returns victorious. He is welcomed by all except the jealous Iago and Rodrigo, whose pursuit of Desdemona seems hopeless as she loves Otello. Nevertheless, her father, Elmiro, announces that she will marry Rodrigo, and Otello’s jealousy is heightened when the scheming Iago shows him a misdirected love letter. Passions boil over, culminating in the bedchamber murder-suicide drawn directly from Shakespeare.
Stephen Smith and Elena Xanthoudakis in Melbourne Opera’s Otello. Photo © Robin Halls
What comes before is only loosely based on The Bard, so there’s not one moment of love between Desdemona and Otello to raise the audience’s sympathy, and Iago’s role and conspiracy are greatly diminished, reducing Otello to a gullible fool. Instead there are Italian opera’s archetypal confrontations, such as a father’s curse and a duel. Rossini’s music, which reset operatic conventions for decades to come, is beautifully moving, but the libretto’s silly melodrama is laid bare in a new English translation by Geoffrey Harris that is particular about rhyme to a tiresome degree. Bravo Boyd Owen, who sang Rodrigo’s whiny da capo complaint to Desdemona about her lack of affection without rolling his eyes.
Whether because of nonsense lyrics or simple nerves, Stephen Smith made a shaky start in the title role on opening night, with some wobbly notes and limp phrasing. He rallied in Act II, however, conveying the music’s emotion with a steady tenor and embodying Otello’s physical and psychological threat. Having impressed as Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena for Melbourne Opera in recent years, Elena Xanthoudakis maintained those high standards as Desdemona, interpreting the character with dignified anxiety and vocal assurance. Her pure, agile soprano reached exquisite heights of delicacy and expression in Act III’s Willow Song.
Elena Xanthoudakis and Boyd Owen in Melbourne Opera’s Otello. Photo © Robin Halls
Xanthoudakis shared a fine duet with Dimity Shepherd, who played Desdemona’s companion Emilia with sympathy and a supple mezzo voice. Boyd Owen and Henry Choo (Iago) round out the trio of principal tenors (remarkably, there are six in all in a cast of nine). Though their acting is unremarkable they sang with pleasing tone, and Choo hit some impressively high notes. Hats off to Peter Tregear, who stepped in for an ailing Roger Howell as Elmiro. Adding to opening night’s vocally nervous start with some pedestrian recitative and what appeared to be a moment of doubt about the lyrics, like Smith, Tregear rose to the occasion.
The Melbourne Opera Chorus tended to shout, and the Melbourne Opera Orchestra sometimes drowned out the principals, but finding the right volume is tricky in the tiny Athenaeum. Led by Greg Hocking, the orchestra was also a little rough around the edges initially, including a slightly wonky horn solo, but overall they delivered an able performance.
Boyd Owen and Henry Choo in Melbourne Opera’s Otello. Photo © Robin Halls
Beresford’s production is conventional, visually evoking Venice at its height in the 17th and 18th century, and doing little to draw out the dark psychology lurking in the text. Greg Carroll’s single set of black floor and faux marble columns is varied by a few elegant pieces of period-appropriate furniture, and still projections of classic Venetian landscape paintings as backdrops (more effective than the overture’s busy montage of paintings). Rhiannon Irving’s costumes also evoke Venice’s Golden Age, though evidently with a less than golden budget. Keeping costs down with dark drapery for most of the gents, she splashed out on the key costumes’ double sleeves, sumptuous fabrics and embroidery, especially Desdemona’s gowns.
A valiant attempt to revive this neglected work by a much loved composer, Melbourne Opera’s production doesn’t have what it takes to raise Rossini’s Otello out of obscurity.
Melbourne Opera’s Otello continues at the Athenaeum Theatre until October 27.