For seventy years after its premiere in 1816 (the same year as Barbiere di Siviglia), Gioachino Rossini’s Otello was a hit in Italy and around the world. (It reached New York in 1826.) Then Verdi composed his very different, far more Shakespearean Otello, and everyone forgot the earlier piece. The style of singing had been completely transformed, for one thing. It is doubtful anyone could still sing Rossini’s opera properly by then; it calls for three or four coloratura tenors.
But now, at the crest of the revival of Rossini singing, Otello’s back. It has a lot going for it: a moderately familiar story (though it’s not very Shakespearean) that can be followed with a minimum of glancing at titles flashed above the action. Also, though the libretto has been denounced by Lord Byron and everyone since, it’s quite focused for its era. There are only three really long arias, just one of them—the lovely “Willow Song”—slow and meditative. The rest of the story of misunderstandings, rising tensions, racial conflict and murder is told in confrontational duets and concerted numbers that play into both Rossini’s style and the modern dramatic taste. Like Verdi’s opera, it’s a story in a hurry.
And for six performances it’s back in New York, the first staging here since 1969, with a cast of first-rate actors who all know how to sing Rossini.
LoftOpera is a feisty little company that operates around Brooklyn, especially Bushwick. They are giving Otello in The LightSpace Studios, a disco on Flushing Avenue about the size of a high school gymnasium. There’s a small orchestra (27, about half the size Rossini wrote for), kept under tight but lyrical control by the company’s maestro, Sean Kelly. The singers do not appear to be looking at him for cues while they are enthusiastically playing out the story, but they only got lost once at Saturday night’s performance.
Soloists and chorus were enthusiastic and attractive (and sometimes very funny) actors, and John de los Santos’s stage direction (modern dress, large bed, flashing knives when the libretto calls for a duel with swords) only ran into trouble making sense of Iago’s wickedness. That gave Shakespeare trouble, too, and people still argue about it; Verdi’s solution—give Iago a big aria proclaiming himself an atheist—was not available to Rossini. The censors in Naples would have been down on him like Vesuvius.
The other differences from Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera are, briefly, that Desdemona’s father, opposed to her marrying an “African,” albeit the national hero, is around to shove her into the arms of Rodrigo, a much larger part here, and there is an incriminating letter instead of a handkerchief propelling Otello’s suspicions. The rest is just as you remember. The closeness of the playing area, the fearlessness of the LoftOpera cast (as well as their musicality), give Rossini more excitement than anyone suspected. There turns out to be a reason it was so hot for so long: it’s a good opera.
Three tenors play Otello, Iago and Rodrigo; there is a fourth tenor as the Doge and a fifth as a gondolier who sings a melancholy solo outside fearful Desdemona’s bedroom window. You can see the casting problems right here, can’t you? But all five were fine.
The makeup dispute that has disturbed other companies with this material lately were solved very neatly indeed: Otello was sung by Bernard Holcomb, who in addition to his other talents, is black and looks like a soldier, tall and sturdy. In addition to a smooth, solid, easily produced tenor, he can launch himself up to the top of his range while fighting a duel—at one point to a ringing E above high C (as no Verdi tenor would ever be required to do), whereupon the audience burst into applause without waiting for the melody to be completed. This was raucous, hurly-burly theater, and everyone was at seat’s edge.
Holcomb also matched high E-flats with Thor Arbjornsson, the Rodrigo, whose lighter, slightly less assured voice met Holcomb’s force with flights of coloratura. Blake Friedman, oozing evil, sang Iago—you did wonder (but we wonder in Shakespeare) how Otello can possibly trust so vile a customer. Friedman loved every moment of it. His singing, too, had an oily luster. Lucas Levy, in the political speech of the Doge, made one regret the small size of his part. John Ramseyer made the Gondolier’s nostalgic solo a thing of beautiful contrast amidst the deadly story. Bass–baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayada rumbled nobly in the unsympathetic but necessary role of Desdemona’s bigoted father.
Cecilia Lopez, a slim brunette in some eye-catching frocks (Matsy Stinson designed the costumes), sang Desdemona in a soprano of considerable weight and shining beauty. The role, like most of those Rossini composed for his first wife, Isabella Colbran, does not rise very high (mezzos sang them as often as sopranos), and calls for passion as the lady fights with the many irrational men in her life. Her “Willow Song” (one of the biggest hit tunes of nineteenth-century Italy—until Verdi wrote his very different one) was elegiac, exquisitely ornamented in the second verse, intense and nervous in the third. My one complaint was the level dynamic; she did not bring the softness, the quietness, the despair of the scene. Lopez might be capable of soft singing, but she did not offer it on this occasion.
Another of the high points of the opera is the lovely duet, “Vorrei, che il tuo pensiero,” that Rossini gives Desdemona and Emilia in Act I. Emilia is necessary to the plot, why not give her a number? Under Lopez and mezzo Toby Newman, this was a high point of the performance.
Opera that brings a packed, sold-out house to its feet with an unfamiliar score, and not a second-rate voice in the large cast is a great treat even in this jaded city. But it was more than opera. It was exciting, live, unamplified music-theater.
Otello (March 16, 18, 20, 23, 25 and 27, 2017)
The LightSpace Studios, 1115 Flushing Avenue, in Bushwick, Brooklyn
For tickets or information: http://www.loftopera.com/store/c7/Tickets_and_Memberships
Running time: three hours including two intermissions