BWW Reviews: When It Comes to Desdemona, LoftOpera Shows the Rossini OTELLO Outdoes Verdi

BWW Reviews: When It Comes to Desdemona, LoftOpera Shows the Rossini OTELLO Outdoes Verdi

BWW Reviews: When It Comes to Desdemona, LoftOpera Shows the Rossini OTELLO Outdoes Verdi
Cecilia Lopez (Desdemona) and Bernard
Holcomb (Otello). Photo: Robert Altman

I must admit that I entered LoftOpera's performance of Rossini's take on OTELLO with some trepidation. Besides having a particular affection for the Verdi version, my experience with "alternate universe" adaptations of famous operas has been iffy at best.

But this OTELLO, predating Verdi's take by over 70 years, seemed a horse of a different color--with LoftOpera making a strong musical case for Rossini, especially in his treatment of Desdemona, Otello's beloved, sung sensationally by soprano Cecilia Lopez.

While Verdi's librettist, Arrigo Boito, took Shakespeare and pared away minor characters and sidebars, and gave us a version that spun tightly around Otello, Desdemona and Iago, Rossini's Francesco Maria Berio di Salsi went off in a quite different direction, working from a French adaptation of the play. In some ways, Rossini and Berio seem to have created more of an ensemble piece, though Desdemona and Rodrigo are the winners in the battle for stage time, while Iago and even the title character are the losers.

In the LoftOpera production, Desdemona makes a strong case for being the center of the story, as the fleshed-out character that Shakespeare and, following him, Boito, neglected to give us. Luckily for LoftOpera, they put the role in the hands of the voluptuously voiced Lopez, who took the opportunity to dominate the stage.

The character is loved and/or manipulated and/or betrayed by men--her husband (Otello), her husband's foe (Iago), her would-be lover (Rodrigo), her father (Elmiro). This being the start of the 19th century, she had little recourse but to let it happen, though with Lopez in the role, it was no-contest in wresting the spotlight from the men. The exciting results included a beautiful "Willow Song" that was different from, but just as moving as, Verdi's.

Then there was Rodrigo, based on Cassio in Shakespeare/Verdi and sung by tenor Thor Abjornsson. In Verdi, he's a minor character--little more than a plot device, giving Otello the opportunity to be jealous and go off the rails. Here, he has a major role, fighting for Desdemona's love. Arbjornsson sang the role with great conviction--if not always quite enough voice. He was terrific in the title role of LoftOpera's LE COMTE ORY, last June, with the charisma and voice to pull off that role. Here, Rodrigo pressed him dearly at times, though he gave it his all and was more persuasive than we had any right to expect in this killer role.

In fact, the opera is filled with killer roles for tenors. (Rossini's work was written for the San Carlo Opera in Naples, whose company was said to be tenor-heavy.) Though there aren't quite as many major high-lying roles as in the composer's ARMIDA--I recall six from the Met's production--the three major roles here are quite enough and while they don't call for exactly the same kind of voice, I wished that Rossini had thrown a baritone into the mix for more variety.

Despite being the title role, Otello isn't the overpowering presence he is in Verdi; tenor Bernard Holcomb couldn't quite overcome this problem, only becoming spirited and vivid enough as Rossini moved the opera towards its tragic finale. This opera's version of Iago has a similar problem, robbed of the opportunity for scene-stealing; as sung by OTELLO's third tenor, Blake Friedman, he was at his most appealing in his duet with Holcomb, "Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue."

Rounding out the cast were mezzo Toby Newman, as an appealing Emilia (Iago's wife) and bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, forceful as Elmiro, another addition to the roster not found in Shakespeare or Verdi. Yet another tenor, John Ramseyer, showed up in a pair of more minor but key roles, using his sweet voice as a gondolier whose song prompts Desdemona's ode to the willow, and as Lucio, one of Otello's aides. (There was still one more tenor, Lucas Levy, as the Doge.) LoftOpera's small but effective chorus was a welcome presence in the proceedings.

I somewhat was puzzled by the production's setting during Europe's "economic miracle", post-World War II (though Matsy Stinson's costumes worked well), but Director-designer John de los Santos couldn't be accused of letting the action lag for a moment. Music director and conductor Sean Kelly also did his part in moving things at a brisk pace, though the orchestra found challenges in the long score.

Nonetheless, we owe LoftOpera a debt of gratitude for exposing us to the opera in live performance, reputedly the first in New York in 40 years. All that was missing: a look at the alternate ending--a "happy ending," no less, that the composer and librettist provided for a demanding public, who often found tragedy too much to bear.

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Further performances of LoftOpera's OTELLO are scheduled for March 20, 23, 25, and 27, at the LightSpace Studios, 1115 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11237. For more information and tickets, visit their website.

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.