Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello is one of those operas bound to give nightmares to general managers of major opera companies whenever they decide to present it. The most obvious hurdle is to find a protagonist able to survive one of the most arduous roles in the entire tenor repertoire; given the complexity of the score, it is also an opera that has always attracted the greatest conductors, even those of Germanic extraction who normally keep at arm’s length from most of the Verdi canon, if not almost the entirety of the Italian repertoire. Finally, considering its authoritative Shakespearean roots (as well as Boito’s crafty libretto, which many a scholar considers a dramaturgical improvement over its source), Otello is a huge test even for the most consummate production team. With such a premise it is no wonder that despite its popularity this opera does not often appear in the programmes of regional opera companies: one more reason to applaud the Teatro Verdi of Pisa for its decision to accept the challenge and, all things considered, to come out of it with its head held high.
The production was entrusted to Enrico Stinchelli, a name that is immensely famous in the Italian operatic world, especially as a co-host of the longest running show in the history of Italian radio, La barcaccia. In the last several years Stinchelli has also successfully added the activity of stage director to his already multifaceted career. This Otello was a classic example of how to create a good-looking, entertaining and often gripping production even with a relative paucity of funds at one’s disposal. The set was basically limited to a platform (or better several layers of platforms) in the shape of a star, elegantly surrounded by other stage elements suggestive of the Muslim world. The most conspicuous component was the presence of a round screen above the platform, onto which a number of images were projected, creating magical moments, such as the vision of the ship at the mercy of the waves at the beginning of the opera, a true example of how to leave the audience gasping for its realism (and one can understand how the Brothers Lumière’s first viewers could feel when watching the legendary train running towards them) using elementary technological means. Not every projection was so successful: showing a close-up of Cassio having an erotic dream during Iago’s narration was the only misstep: it was not necessary and too reminiscent of Zeffirelli’s similar solution in his Otello film. Stinchelli did not limit himself to playing with technology, as the interaction among the characters, while keeping within a traditional frame, suggested a meticulous study of their relationships. The elegant costumes and especially Gerald Agius Ordway’s crafty lighting brought a significant contribution to the success of the mise-en-scène.
In addition to the visual aspect, the other winning element of the production was the protagonist himself. I had previously heard Antonello Palombi in several other operas, and while always professional, I had always found something questionable in his performances. As Otello, Palombi was excellent. He displayed a dark, rich, opulent instrument that darted to the top with security, maintaining the same tonnage and colour of his middle register. The “Esultate” was vigorous, ringing and electrifying in its impetuosity, and even the acciaccatura on the B 4 he accurately nailed. His characterization of Otello was noble, if not yet truly individualized or, on the very highest level consistently tragic. The stakes are, indeed, higher for Otello than any other tenor role in the Italian repertoire. To say that one wants more authentic intimacy in the love duet, more pain in the voice for “Ora e per sempre addio”, a deeper sense of degradation in “Dio! Mi potevi scagliar”, and greater desolation in the final act, is, in this case, not so much to criticize the singer as to note how revealing a tragedy this is. Palombi’s attempt to follow Verdi’s dynamics was manifest; except in some shouted phrases (for instance he neglected the ppp required by the composer at the beginning of “Dio, mi potevi scagliare”), Palombi displayed a variegated singing, with beautiful mezzevoci and soft floating notes even above the stave. I appreciated other often neglected details such as the perfect execution of the dotted notes denoting sarcasm in phrase “Perdonate se il mio pensiero è fello” in the act III duet with Desdemona. He seems to have grasped what is central to the work: the image of a noble character gradually reduced to a baser instinct. In a few words, despite some excesses (that perhaps a stricter, more authoritative conductor could have reined in), he gave us a human and grieving Otello, as opposed to the raving maniac of a certain tradition. All in all, a satisfying performance.
Cinzia Forte, a soprano of some renown in the lyric coloratura repertoire, was making her debut as Desdemona. Her soprano, does not possess the ideal weight for the role; it is too light and its natural barycentre too high for the tessitura of the part. In addition to this, her timbre is somewhat generic and characterized by a fast vibrato that partially spoiled the long legato of so many of Desdemona’s phrases. To her credit, she never artificially forced her voice, not even when confronting the column of sound coming from her partner’s throat. Dramatically, she had good intentions, and the sense of vulnerability present in her voice was her best asset: one could sense actual tears in her uttering “Guarda le prime lagrime”, and her long scene in Act IV was deeply moving and heartfelt. Yet, vocally this role does not seem like a match made in heaven for her.
Carlo Guelfi spent the first two acts, which are the busiest for the role of Iago, virtually speaking, with a parched timbre and no trace of overtones. During the intermission his indisposition was announced. Perhaps his ill health may have contributed to his fatigued top, but it is undeniable that such dryness of timbre has unfortunately characterized his performances for several years.
Valeria Sepe made the most of her few chances to shine as Emilia (her “Otello ha ucciso Desdemona” was enough to make one wish to hear her in a bigger assigment), while Cristiano Olivieri did not convince as Cassio, a part that should be cast with a full lyric tenor with a beautiful timbre. Angelo Fiore (Roderigo), Emanuele Cordaro (Lodovico), Juan José Navarro (Montano) and Andrea Paolucci (un araldo) fulfilled their supporting duties with honour.
Conductor Claudio Maria Micheli seemed more focused in keeping together soloists, orchestra and chorus (the latter being not perfectly synchronized with the pit on a few occasions) than in displaying his personal conception of the opera. Although he showed energy at the obvious points, and highlighted some details that often pass unnoticed (such as the acciaccaturas in the orchestra under Desdemona’s “ Scendean gli augelli a vol dai rami cupi”), so much of the opera lacked structural clarity and rhythmic detail.
All things considered, the Teatro Verdi can claim to have scored a goal by virtue of a production worthy of being revived for other companies and a tenor deserving to be heard in this role in the major international opera houses.
Opera BritanniaPhotographs © Massimo D'Amato, Firenze