Thursday, October 18, 2018

Desdemona is the star in Melbourne Opera's Australian premiere of Rossini's Otello: Herald Sun Review

Published in print in Melbourne's Herald Sun, 19th October 2018.

We now know that Verdi’s Otello, which he based directly on Shakespeare’s play, was not the only operatic version. In an Australian premiere of an almost 202 year-old work, Melbourne Opera introduced another, by Rossini, based instead on later adaptations of Shakespeare.

Stephen Smith as Otello and Elena Xanthoudakis as Desdemona
Rossini expectedly delights to no end with his merry-go-round of gorgeous orchestration and melodies but the dramatic tension remains lukewarm.

Geoffrey Harris’ new English translation of Francesco Berio di Salsa’s libretto beamed largely on three fronts, in this case unnecessarily since the text was sung with superb clarity. Worse, the screens further emphasised the libretto’s laborious nature and detracted from Greg Carroll’s slick, black-marbled set design, Liliana Braumberger’s projections of Venetian vistas and Rhiannon Irving’s refined late 15th century costumes.

Not even legendary film director Bruce Beresford’s touch could muster seamless exciting action in the score’s long repetitions. Early in Act 2, when Rodrigo learns that Desdemona is already married to Otello, even she appeared exasperated by Rodrigo’s lengthy reiterations.

Further, little feels left but to relish the voices by halfway through its story of unfounded betrayal and conspiracy when all Otello and Desdemona independently wish for is to die. With radiant soprano Elena Xanthoudakis’ mellifluous beauty and quality trills capturing attention, it’s Desdemona who deserves the opera in her name. Dimity Shepherd, as her friend Emilia threaded boundless richness alongside her.

Scene from Act 1 of Melbourne Opera's Otello
The work boasts six tenors, of which Henry Choo brought the greatest vocal flexibility and persuasive recitatives to with his shadowy Iago. Vulnerabilities elsewhere persisted. In the title role, Stephen Smith looked the imposing part of the courageous Moor and possesses a voice of appealing muscularity but the top notes faltered. Similarly, all the finesse in Boyd Owen’s warm golden tones, as the fervent Rodrigo, faded in the punishing loftier region.

Under Greg Hocking’s command, the full pit unleashed the best music-making with the mighty crescendos as did the sizeable chorus.

It’s worth seeing for its rarity but if The Barber of Seville is the only other opera you’ve seen of Rossini’s output of around 40, you might agree with Beethoven when he told the composer, “Never try to write anything else but opera buffa”.

Melbourne Opera
Athenaeum Theatre
Until 27th October, 2018


Production Photos: Robbie Halls

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