David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine.
Review: LoftOpera's 'Otello' by Rossini Rewards With Three Fine Tenors
Friday, March 17, 2017 - 01:20 PM
Is there anybody in this opera who is NOT a tenor?
That’s a valid question in Rossini’s Otello, which is sort of based on Shakespeare, predates Verdi’s more famous version of the story and has Desdemona as the only major non-tenor role. And that’s only one way in which this opera doesn’t play by typical rules. It’s a love story without a love duet but makes time in instrumental passages for a French horn aria. It’s a strangely good match for the alternative aura of LoftOpera, which has a history with Rossini operas and, with its nomadic nature, tends to mix and match venues with repertoire.
The Thursday opening began a six-performance run (through March 27) at the LightSpace Studios in Brooklyn that had me navigating the unplowed sidewalks of Bushwick, grousing about the lengths I'll go to for opera. But the production was a genuine encounter with the seldom produced, undervalued opera, in what is said to be the first New York staging in 40 years.
Lesser-known Rossini isn’t always inviting — the Metropolitan Opera’s pretty but dramatically inert La Donna del Lago, for example. But Otello has genuine dramatic thrust, excellent ensembles, arias that are surprisingly well integrated into the action and a final act that’s among Rossini’s very best. Like most non-comic Rossini, it exists in a more expansive time zone (it’s three hours plus) and was trimmed only in the recitatives and repetitive sections.
Both stage director John de los Santos (who set the production in the Vietnam War era) and music director Sean Kelly kept the pace viable. The basic story about Otello’s ascent to power — with a built-in racially-motivated conspiracy to take him down — couldn’t help but suggest parallels with recent American politics. But the 1816 opera conforms to the theatrical plot patterns of its time by having Desdemona initially promised to Rodrigo, who is enraged to find that she secretly married Otello.
Wisely, the overture came with staging business of Otello and Desdemona getting up in the morning together — establishing the nature of their relationship in ways the opera itself neglects. The tiny stage and limited budget meant that the production's stage pictures were more of a sketch than anything comprehensive. But polish isn’t the point here; the main appeal is hearing high-caliber but not necessarily seasoned singers in close proximity with lots of dramatic immediacy and without the slightest hint of autopilot. Such qualities can invite a greater listener participation than something more remote and complete.
The three LoftOpera tenors seem to be Rossini specialists — as opposed to lyric tremors muscling their way through the coloratura — attuned to style and with a vocal flexibility that allows high notes to be more than technical achievements but key plot points, whether at the climax of a physical confrontation or at a psychological breaking point. Most notable on that front was the Rodrigo of Thor Arbjornsson, whose slim but vibrant tenor comes with a coloratura technique that sounds like the most natural thing in the world. Yes, plenty of high notes are there, and they’re also thrilling. In the title role, Bernard Holcomb was perhaps the most complete musico-dramatic package, with the stage magnetism needed for the role plus a more full-bodied tenor sound with penetrating high notes. As Iago, Blake Friedman had all the necessary notes but with a tone that's still developing.
And Desdemona? If you're attached to Verdi's version of the role, Cecilia Lopez hardly was an innocent, virginal vision of that character. But Rossini's Desdemona is more defiant; Lopez was staged as a worldly embassy wife. Her full-bodied voice was dramatically penetrating, though she fudged some of the Rossinian intricacies and missed some subtleties to be had in the role. Yet under the circumstances, you really couldn't ask for better.
What I could ask for is more effective crowd control. The intimate club atmosphere of LoftOpera has its down sides: By the end, beer bottles were clanking around on the floor and listeners were distractingly using their camera phones with increased frequency.