jueves, julio 25, 2013

“Otello”, Verdi´s magical empathy with Shakespeare

Giuseppe Verdi was the greatest Italian operatic composer; moreover, he was the most shining example of gradual perfectionism in the history of music: his greatest operas were written in old age. And he thus produced the most tragic of operas, "Otello", and the most refined comedy, "Falstaff". 

            After "Aida" Verdi had retired to his farm, "Sant´Agata" near Busseto and close to Parma. He was rich and famous; he felt that his creative cycle was over. But his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, his publisher, Tito Ricordi, and conductor Franco Faccio, managed to bring Arrigo Boito to Verdi´s house.

            Boito gained Verdi´s confidence with the revision of "Simone Boccanegra" (1881) and his first draft of the libretto for "Otello" impressed the composer. Boito was a member of the avantgarde literary movement called "scapigliatura" ("bohemianism"), which would eventually influence futurism. His acute comprehension and admiration of Shakespeare, whom he adapts to the requisites of opera with exemplary respect, doesn´t preclude some inventions of his own, especially the magnificent "Credo" sung by Iago as the personification of Evil.

            Shakespeare based his play "Othello, the Moor of Venice" in "Il moro di Venezia", a novel by Giambattista Giraldi Cinzio (published 1565).  Curious facts: of the five acts, the first happens in Venice, the others in Cyprus. In Boito/Verdi, all four acts take place in Cyprus. In Rossini´s opera ( very attractive antecedent in opera), the three acts occur in Venice...

            As a character Othello stands as the perfect example of the psychopathic jealous. He is a dark-skinned Moor such as was the concept in Elizabethan times and a converted Christian, a strong warrior named by Venice to defeat the Turkish Muslims. But the Adriatic republic certainly doesn´t approve of his marriage to Desdemona .  Outstanding in battle, he remains vulnerable and profoundly uncertain; he is an easy prey to Iago, a true paradigm of the worst in human nature. And Desdemona, pure innocent, lacks that most feminine quality, intuition, which leads her to lethal silliness.

            What Verdi does is a continuous miracle of astonishing modernism, his music mirroring every possible expression of the text. There are no weaknesses anywhere (if we eliminate the "Ballabili" -composed for the later French premiere- as is generally and rightly done). And the tragic intensity simply has no paragon in Italian opera.

            Otello is the mightiest dramatic role and the demands, both as singer and actor, are overwhelming. There are very few Otellos of stature in any generation. Since 1950 Buenos Aires has seen three of the best: Mario del Monaco (1950), Ramón Vinay (1958) and Plácido Domingo (1981). The last revival was in 1999 and the protagonist was the Argentine José Cura. Now he came back in a triple capacity, for he was also the producer and stage designer, a tall order indeed.

            How did he fare? As a singer, at 50 his vocal method, always unorthodox, isn´t helping him: he does manage some exciting and moving moments but the emission  is erratic and the lack of line often leads him to unmusical details. As an actor he alternates between passivity and fury, not always cogently.

            Changing the natural order, I will refer to his stage designs prior to his producing, for in that sense I found him a pleasant surprise. The opera is presented in two acts and as the action needs both outdoor and indoor  spaces, the solution of a unit set, so often used nowadays, would be wrong. Cura does something better: a  set divided into three parts; the biggest is for the crowd scenes at the fort; the other two are rooms, one for meetings and the other a bedroom. They are done –blessedly- in reasonable resemblance to Medieval style and look attractive.

             They are all built within the huge gyrating platform of the Colón stage. Alas, Cura overdoes it, and he changes from scenery to scenery unnecessarily, which confuses things. As a producer, he falls into the trend of voyeurism, with an almost omnipresent Iago, even in that magical love scene of the First Act.  Some situations are well observed, but the final minutes are botched: Emilia is killed (she shouldn´t be), Iago doesn´t escape but is injured and stays on stage.  Also, at various moments Iago and Otello talk private things in front of uncalled-for other people.

            The costumes by Fabio Fernando Ruiz (debut) are correct but nondescript, and the lighting by Cura and Roberto Traferri, quite conventional.

            Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez made his awaited debut after a very successful career. His singing is firm, clear and musical, his timbre quite adequate. But to my mind he lacks personality, both as an actor and a singer, and I missed both the satanic innuendo and the vocal expansion of a great baritone such as Giuseppe Taddei.

            I was sorry when I found that the announced Barbara Frittoli (one of the best Desdemonas nowadays) was replaced by Carmen Giannattasio (debut), but in fact she was a pleasant surprise, the best artist on stage: a rather beautiful lyric-dramatic voice, refined phrasing and good acting instincts.

            Guadalupe Barrientos was a very assured Emilia; Enrique Folger sang a good Cassio; and the others were in the picture (Carlos Esquivel, Fernando Chalabe, Mario De Salvo, Fernando Grassi). I found conductor Massimo Zanetti (debut) rather mild and not always accurate in his indications, with an orchestra and a chorus (Miguel Martínez) that responded acceptably but no more.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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