Review: LoftOpera's 'Otello' by Rossini Rewards With Three Fine Tenors

Friday, March 17, 2017 - 01:20 PM

LoftOpera's production of Rossini's 'Otello.' LoftOpera's production of Rossini's 'Otello.' (Robert Altman)

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.

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Comments [5]

Marianna from Manhattan

I am not a Millennial - let me start with that. I avidly attend both the Met Opera and Loft Opera with equal amounts of joy and gratitude. The beer drinking and thumping music before the show is part of LoftOpera's culture and I embrace it! If you don't like the pre-show bring ear plugs. In fact a tumbling beer bottle actually served a delightful harmonic gilding to the closing notes of the overture to Macbeth late last year as we huddled together freezing our tuchus' off in the Bklyn Navy Yard. Rather than a distraction it brought all of us into the experience of making the opera happen. It was transformative, and yes, everyone chuckled about it.

In Victoria Bond's lecture last night at MetOperaGuild she spoke about Beethoven's Fidelo and she told a story about Beethoven's enraged assertion that he only wrote for the "box" seats, the "gallery" seats be damned. This was in contrast to Mozart who reveled in composing for the "gallery". Is anyone surprised that the "operatic score" (as it were) between Mozart & Beethoven is set at 22-1?

LoftOpera is our modern-day gallery - Beware ye who diss those who attend as they are our future.

Mar. 21 2017 12:32 PM

Regarding Mr. Stearns last paragraph, I agree. I would also suggest that the wonderful Loft Opera reconsider the playing of rap/rock music prior to the opera. I always arrive an hour early to ensure a good seat, but am forced to listen to this godawful music combined with the orchestra warm-ups and noodling for the entire hour, mixed with the noisy entrance of enthusiastic patrons bar hopping and settling in. By the time of the first notes of the overture, my ears are ringing and totally shot.
That all being said, this is an amazing, wonderful company and their Otello was truly exciting. I'll attend all future productions, which will I hope be presented without the annoying pre-show and intermission noise. I came for Rossini, not this noise.

Mar. 19 2017 02:48 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Re the opera itself, the librettist originally wanted to include Desdemona's upbringing during her youth as Act I, but that idea was vetoed by Rossini, but he did write an alternate happy ending.

Mar. 19 2017 10:36 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

@castadiva: Bad manners all around. There is a large audience for Real Housewives that glorifies this, etc.
As for Otello by Rossini: I remember reading that he wanted a happy ending for the opera.

Mar. 18 2017 09:47 AM
CastaDiva from New York, NY

Not staged, but Eve Queler and her OONY gave us a wonderful concert version of the opera at Carnegie Hall ten years ago. And, as usual she showcased an ensemble of gifted young singers.

I cannot agree with your comment re the Met’s Donna; although the sets were unappealing, mainly due to the dim lighting throughout most of the opera, the singing was marvelous. Inert? How could it be with the divine DiDonato in the title role and the incomparable Florez as Giacomo? But I did not enjoy the Met’s current Tell. Yes, the tenor hit all the high notes, but he is not a bel canto singer; furthermore, his is not a pleasing voice. Your description of “tremors [sic] muscling their way through the coloratura” could aptly be applied to him. And while the rest of the cast acquitted themselves well, they did not give us the thrilling singing and vocal fireworks that this opera affords.

Re. audience behavior, the Met doesn’t have beer drinkers in the auditorium, no, but other conduct that is annoying: of late I have noticed people, evidently bored with the show, who resort to the modern day addiction, namely, the iPhone, and happily snuggle into their seats and play solitaire or text their friends or pay their bills, for all I know. They do stop when asked to, but the habit is distracting to others. The Met goes through great pains to widen its audience, but concert etiquette training is needed---Met, take note, or risk losing those opera goers annoyed with the above-mentioned behavior.

I am glad, Mr. Stearns, that the Otello performance was good; certainly you deserved that, what with the snowy sidewalks and the beer drinking audience.

Mar. 17 2017 09:25 PM

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