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Published: 19th October, 2018

Thanks to Melbourne Opera’s initiative in mounting operas that have never been seen or have been rarely performed in Australia, we now have an opportunity to see the Australian premiere of the “other” Otello. Instead of the familiar masterpiece by a 74-year-old Verdi, we have a very different version from a prolific 24-year-old Rossini, who demanded astonishing virtuosity from his singers.

Of the six tenors, two mezzo-sopranos and baritone, most require an enormous vocal range and phenomenal agility. It is no easy task to assemble such a cast. Having a strong Otello is still a crucial in Rossini’s version, but Desdemona’s role is perhaps even more central and one that can determine the degree of success that the opera enjoys. Rossini had the services of the most famous divas of his day: Isabella Colbran, his wife, who created the role of Desdemona in 1816; Giuditta Pasta, who triumphed in the 1821 Paris premiere; and Maria Malibran, his favourite singer, who is also documented as having sung the role of Otello himself. Although the part was written for mezzo-soprano, it is also sung by sopranos specialising in the bel canto repertoire of Bellini and Donizetti. Australian operatic sensation Jessica Pratt, for instance, can be heard on a 2008 Naxos recording.

Elena Xanthoudakis too excels in the bel canto repertoire and has already notched up notable successes in Melbourne Opera productions of Donizetti’s Maria Stuardaand Anna Bolena. Her Desdemona is another outstanding performance and a reason in itself to rush off to buy a ticket. She has a great deal of taxing music to sing and she does so with apparent ease, tossing off the abundance of runs in a way that invests them with meaning rather than simply a vehicle for dazzling technical display. Clear diction in musically expressive extended passages of recitative, accurate intonation, a lovely warm rounded tone throughout the range and exciting spin on full top notes all contributed to a compelling interpretation. The final scene where she sings a “Willow Song” was a poignant contrast to Otello’s murderous jealous rage. Bruce Beresford’s direction has ensured that the audience would share his reaction when he first felt the devastating effect of this thunderstorm finale.

As Otello, Stephen Smith really came into his own in this scene. He sounded more vocally secure and projected a frightening sense of compressed power about to be unleashed. He possesses a rich, vibrant tenor voice, suitably more powerful and darker in colour than those around him, and he has the commanding physical presence to convince as a victorious warrior capable of securing Desdemona’s love.

Rossini has amplified the role of Rodrigo so that he becomes an equal side of a love triangle. Boyd Owen was exceptionally impressive in respect of the range of his attractive, virile tenor voice and the way he negotiated the numerous florid passages. He was a convincing actor, striking a nice balance between ardent suitor and jealous plotter, although Rodrigo’s sudden noble gesture at the end of the opera is a puzzling aspect of Francesco Berio di Salsa’s libretto.

Using an English translation may not have shown the work to best advantage. There is a certain comic feel to parts of Rossini’s music in the first half of the opera and sometimes the words seemed so banal that they could almost have come from a Gilbert and Sullivan parody. Emilia’s “This is awful” response to the deplorable way Desdemona is being treated was met with loud guffaws. It wasn’t Dimity Shepherd’s fault; she is an expressive actress with a fine mezzo-soprano voice. Her Act 1 duet with Xanthoudakis was particularly beautiful and one of the several ensemble highlights of the opera.

There was even something slightly comic in Rossini’s version of Iago. He has reduced the role to jealous plotter – a villain but without the intensity and weight of Verdi’s Iago. Henry Choo’s clear, flexible tenor delivered florid passages and upper extremities confidently.

Peter Tregear deserved the special acknowledgment given to him by conductor Greg Hocking during the curtain calls. He undertook the role of Elmiro, Desdemona’s father, at short notice due to the illness of Roger Howell. It is a substantial role with demanding coloratura for a baritone. Tenors Paul Biencourt, Jason Wasley and Michael Dimovski as Lucio, Doge and Gondolier respectively also made effective contributions.

Members of the small men’s chorus that begins the opera sang with precision and energy, as did the women later on. Beresford used Greg Carroll’s set to excellent effect, arranging the men on the huge black paving tiles as a continuation of the figures on the backdrop of St Mark’s Square in the opening scene. Bunching the whole chorus between the monumental black marble pillars in subsequent scenes gave the impression of a larger body of singers without anybody looking constricted. At times, the period art projections seemed a little too busy, particularly during the overture and the swordfight between Rodrigo and Otello, but they mostly provided an atmospheric background to the action. Although there was a certain stylistic disconnect in the final scene when videos of sunset and clouds were used, the end result was dramatically persuasive.

The orchestral playing was a little uneven at times but the oboe solo in the overture and other prominent work from the flute, solo horn and harp showed that virtuosity was not confined to the singers. Subsequent performances are bound to gain in assurance and I, for one, am looking forward to attending at least one of them.

This review is of Melbourne Opera at the  Athenaeum Theatre on October 17, 2018.