Verdi’s Otello opens with a fierce storm raging over Cyprus. In Rossini’s version, composed 71 years earlier in 1816, the composer eschewed the Cypriot setting entirely and the storm doesn’t take place until Act III, although last night a mighty crack of thunder resounded over the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as the audience filed into the opera house. Rossini’s opera is now a rarity, not least because it requires not one but three tenors, as well as a Desdemona with a dazzling technique. Happily, Cecilia Bartoli took the role into her repertoire in 2012 in this Opernhaus Zürich production by the directing duo of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, revived here with much the same cast.

John Osborn (Otello), Nicola Pamio (Doge) and Peter Kálmán (Elmiro) © Vincent Pontet
John Osborn (Otello), Nicola Pamio (Doge) and Peter Kálmán (Elmiro)
© Vincent Pontet

As a plot, it doesn’t remotely resemble Shakespeare until Act III. Lord Byron saw a performance in Venice in 1818 and wrote, “They have been crucifying Othello into an opera… Music good but lugubrious – but as for the words!”. The handkerchief, which Iago uses to convince Othello of his wife’s infidelity, disappears, replaced with a love-letter containing a lock of her hair. However, in the development of Italian opera, Otello was extremely important. Until then, characters rarely died in Italian opera – if they did, it was usually off-stage and usually the villain meeting a just end. Otello and Michele Carafa’s Gabriella di Vergy (both Neapolitan opera premièred in 1816) were the first great operas with a romantic tragic ending.

Leiser and Caurier offer a contemporary setting, with the returning general Otello greeted by a number of suited dignitaries while Desdemona is clad in a little black dress and stilettos. A banquet takes place just off-stage, with much to and fro movement as characters enter and exit. Much of Act II takes place in a café, where Otello is listening to Arabic music on the radio. Their production is entirely inoffensive and they didn’t deserve the volley of cat-calls hurled at them at the curtain-call.

The entire action takes place in Venice – a gondolier is heard in the final act, singing a line about Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s Inferno – "Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria" (There is no greater sorrow than to recall past happiness in time of misery). Desdemona scrawls this onto the walls of her bedroom. The role was written for Isabella Colbran (later to become Rossini’s wife); a mezzo with an unrivalled trill and one of the first singers noted for her vocal agility, yet who added expression to the ornamentation. Bartoli is a worthy successor. Occasionally her regard to dynamic expression reveals itself in a breathy quality, but her technique is fearless. The audience had to wait until the end of Act II for Bartoli’s vocal fireworks, her bravura aria displaying her precision machine-gun coloratura, drawing roars from the auditorium. The ‘Willow song’ is cunningly composed, a four-strophe ballad where no two verses are identical. Here, Desdemona pulls out an old record player to spin a favourite disc from childhood, the extended harp introduction pre-recorded with added crackle and hiss familiar to those of us who remember LPs!

The tenor-tastic trio showed a welcome variety of style and vocal colour. The title role, composed for Andrea Nozzari, was well-suited to the baritonal tenor of John Osborn, who had the darkest tenor of the three, yet one still capable of pinging out strong top notes. His Act III duet with Bartoli, set against an orchestral storm, was excellent. Edgardo Rocha (previously Iago in this production) here traded up to the role of Rodrigo, a far more important role than the fop Shakespeare imagines, which requires a tenore di grazia lightness of touch. Rocha met those requirements very well, especially in the splendid Act II aria “Ah! come mai non senti”, the closing section of which listeners would possibly recognise as Rossini’s “Cat Duet”, which wasn’t actually composed by him at all, but stitched together from a couple of sources, including Otello. Barry Banks’ steely tenor glints somewhere between the two as the scheming Iago, here given lesser importance in the plot, the ‘Jealousy scene’ mainly taking the form of dramatic recitative, albeit accompanied by the full orchestra. Rossini writes three splendid duets for each combination of tenors, the highlight being the Otello-Iago one in Act II, and were all dispatched with the necessary virtuosity.

Edgardo Rocha (Rodrigo), Cecilia Bartoli (Desdemona) and John Osborn (Otello) © Vincent Pontet
Edgardo Rocha (Rodrigo), Cecilia Bartoli (Desdemona) and John Osborn (Otello)
© Vincent Pontet

Iago’s motivation in this production is racial hatred, although the Marchese Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa’s libretto has him as a spurned suitor to Desdemona. This racism extends to other characters, the maître d’hôtel constantly snubbing a black waiter, who also draws anger when he drops a tray of canapés. More dubious is the decision to have Osborn black up for the title role, which strikes an uncomfortable note. The tenor taking the title role in the Venetian performance of the opera witnessed by Byron refused to black up. Maybe it’s time for today’s tenors to follow that lead?

Smaller roles of Elmiro, Desdemona’s father, and Emilia were strongly taken by Peter Kálmán and Liliana Nikiteanu. Jean-Christophe Spinosi, dubbed the ‘l’enfant terrible of classical music’ in the programme, led a performance which never shied away from edgy drama, with his trademark sforzandos driven to exaggerated effect and favouring a harsh string tone. The overture, which Rossini claimed he composed whilst locked up by an impatient impresario with nothing more than a plate of macaroni for company, fizzed into life. The drama in the score came across well, but Spinosi wasn’t always supported well by the players of Ensemble Matheus; the principal horn was particularly noticeable for several fluffs and split notes throughout the evening and the orchestra was given a hostile response at the end.

Rossini’s Otello is never going to be preferred to Verdi’s later opera. He reserves his best music for the final act, but for curiosity value, it’s worth the occasional revival, especially with such a fine cast as assembled here, despite the stormy Parisian reception.