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Otello, ossia il moro di Venezia (in concert)

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The Italian conductor Evelino Pidò is known for his refined nuances. For his debut at La Monnaie he is conducting our Symphony Orchestra in a strangely forgotten opera by Rossini. Otello ossia il moro di Venezia is a rare gem: an opera seria on the crown of the master of the opera buffa –though the work might just as easily have been called ‘Desdemona’ given the importance of this female role. Anna Caterina Antonacci’s performance adds further lustre to this production and will prove that Otello, one of the most beautiful scores in the bel canto repertoire, can withstand comparison with Giuseppe Verdi’s opera.

Rossini’s Otello is not often staged, but this isn’t the first time you have conducted the work, is it?

A year ago I conducted a concert version at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Everyone knows Rossini for his comic operas like Il Barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola and, to a slightly lesser extent, L’Italiana in Algeri and Il Turco in Italia. But his opera serias are not as well known, whereas in the nineteenth century Rossini was regarded as the ‘grande maestro’ of opera seria too. He was widely admired, not least by Beethoven and Berlioz. Naples was the centre of his activity during the initial main phase of his composing career and it was there that the first masterpieces saw the light of day. Afterwards he took up residence in Paris, having been awarded an important contract there. In that phase his work increased in maturity, thanks to new influences and contacts. He mastered the comic and the tragic genres down to the last detail and raised both to a higher level. With Guillaume Tell, created in 1829, he ceased composing for the stage, some forty years before his death! There is much speculation as to the reasons why. I have had the privilege of exchanging views about this with several of the greatest musicologists of the Italian opera, like Bruno Cagli and Philip Gossett. It could be that after a masterpiece like Guillaume Tell on which he worked for several years and which asked so much of him, Rossini realized it would be impossible to surpass or even match that level. When I conducted Otello for the first time, I had already done various other Rossini operas, but for me this work was a revelation. I knew Verdi’s Otello and it is worth comparing the two works. It is interesting how the two composers gave different emphasis and weight to the characters. The structure of Rossini’s opera is perhaps rather uneven. Act One, for example, contains some beautiful pages but is weaker dramatically and musically. The work begins to grow in the second act and the third act is nothing short of sublime, a masterpiece in fact. The title of Rossini’s opera could just as easily have been ‘Desdemona’; from a dramatic point of view, Rossini clearly considered her an important character. As the drama builds, so too does the part she plays, to such an extent even that you might say she is the one who ‘carries’ the third act. Other characters excel in Rossini’s score too; take for example Rodrigo’s extraordinary aria in the second act. Rossini had several exceptional tenors at his disposal in Naples. Like other composers, he wrote to measure for specific singers. In the period when he composed Otello, there was great rivalry between two tenors, Andrea Nozzari and Giovanni David (Otello and Rodrigo respectively in the 1816 creation). This is also reflected in the degree of difficulty and the importance of their interventions. Other characters were given beautiful interventions too: Iago’s gran duetto and Emilia’s petit duetto at the beginning… There are numerous pages in this score which are very moving. In Act Three Rossini came up with a brilliant artifice: he has a gondolier sing offstage, which reminds Desdemona of the tragic lot of a friend. This is a ‘coup de théâtre’ and a master-stroke on Rossini’s part. It is only 16 bars, but what an effect! The structure of the third act is the work of a genius … The orchestra is also given a prominent role, allowing Rossini to demonstrate his mastery of the orchestra technique. He comes up with great instrumental solos, including an important and difficult piece for the horn. There are solo instrumental interventions in the overture too. But one often hears the ‘Rossini serio’ played like the ‘Rossini comico’, whereas in my opinion there should be a clear distinction between the two genres. For his comic operas the sonority has to be brilliant, transparent and refined. For his tragic and his serious works we have to find a sound together – because it is my debut with La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus – which is never too heavy, but which is ‘broader’, ‘fuller’. The legatos, the staccatos… the whole palette is different!

Do you make specific demands on the orchestra for this sort of repertoire?

There are no bad orchestras, just bad conductors! It is thanks to a conductor that an orchestra comes into its own. Naturally it is different if you can work with the best orchestras! But even with those orchestras it is the conductor’s task to pass something on. I’m going to be conducting La Monnaie Orchestra for the first time: I want to bring out the quality that is there.

What is needed to perform Rossini well?

I believe you have to find the right ‘tone’ with the necessary flexibility and correct phrasing – phrasing is one of my hobbyhorses! Bel canto is all to do with nuance and subtlety. At the moment I am conducting quite a lot of French repertoire and I see many similarities. The evolution of the French opera is bound up with Rossini’s realizations.

But after the nineteenth century the perception of his opera serias changed radically. Take Otello: until 1887, when Verdi’s Otello was created, this opera enjoyed almost continuous success, whereas now...

It is true that Rossini’s opera serias are not very well known and rarely performed – whereas they are some his most impressive achievements. That does not alter the fact that he did write comic masterpieces, because he was a real theatre animal, ‘our Gioachino’! But there are other factors than just a (possible) lack of interest in this repertoire. To stage Rossini’s serious operas, as a rule you need three tenors, two of them world class, a third of a very high level and then often also a fourth! That is a huge challenge – which of course applies to most bel canto works. If you don’t have the singers for it, then it is better not to stage it…. For the production in Brussels I insisted upon having largely the same cast as last year in Paris, though John Osborn has been replaced by Gregory Kunde, who is an outstanding Rossini tenor.

You have already talked about the singers, but could you also tell us what you think the specific qualities of a Rossini singer are?

First and foremost the singer must have a certain ‘coloratura’, which is different for his comic operas and his tragic works. Speed is also essential, as is good articulation. With Rossini we may not yet find the long legato melodies as later with Donizetti and particularly with Bellini, but he strove for extreme virtuosity (particularly vocally). As an interpreter it is a question of finding and emphasizing Rossini’s ‘soul’ – as we experience it in the third act of Otello!

Recorded by Marie Mergeay

article - 26.3.2012


Otello, ossia il moro di Venezia (in concert)


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