Think of Otello and it’s likely to be that miraculous collaboration between Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito, a near perfect operatic adaptation of Shakespeare. Less familiar – and far less Shakespearean – is Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 opera, not least because three of the four demanding main roles are written for tenors. But given the interest of star singers such as Cecilia Bartoli (a fine Desdemona) and Juan Diego Flórez (always Rodrigo, never Otello), Rossini’s opera earns the occasional outing. It’s entirely fitting that this knockout new production in Pesaro, Rossini’s hometown, is directed by another local, Rosetta Cucchi.
In Rossini's version, it’s best to forget Shakespeare. He was not librettist Francesco Maria Berio’s main source and there’s little in the first two acts to suggest anything beyond usual opera seria tropes: a secret marriage, a disapproving dad, scheming rivals. Even the pivotal handkerchief is replaced by a love letter. It’s only in Act 3, with Desdemona’s Willow Song and the final tragedy, that one finally recognises the Bard.
Tiziano Santi’s sets and Ursula Patzak’s costumes offer a vaguely contemporary setting, dominated by a large banqueting table in the outer acts, switching to laundryroom in Act 2. A pair of video panels sometimes depict the characters’ innermost thoughts in reaction to what is happening on stage. But there’s another panel, inset on the left, from which Desdemona’s maid Emilia – or her double – views events. For we are in flashback mode, the sinfonia depicting her showing people into the apartment, which is now up for sale, with newspaper headlines flashed on screen to depict the shockwaves that greeted Desdemona’s death. During the opera, we watch Emilia relive events, powerless to prevent the murder of her mistress.
Male violence against women is Cucchi’s central message and it’s one that she delivers strongly. We witness Iago’s physical assault on Emilia, Elmiro’s slap when his daughter Desdemona refuses to marry Rodrigo, Otello’s temper erupting when he’s quick to believe his wife has been unfaithful. And on video, we see Elmiro pull a young Desdemona out of ballet class, a painful memory that has scarred her.
Tenor testosterone flies in three sweaty duets. Iago prepares a line of cocaine for Rodrigo and later poisons Otello’s mind. Rodrigo eventually faces down Otello with a revolver and they engage in a round of Russian roulette before Desdemona intervenes. Otello knocks her to the ground before fleeing to his duel. When she comes round, Desdemona is joined on stage by a chorus of women in bloodstained nightgowns, victims of domestic abuse, holding up palms marked with “No!”. Among them is Isaura, a captive from Africa, whom Desdemona sings about in her Act 3 Willow Song. Rather than dying for love in the libretto, we see Isaura being strangled on video. On stage, Isaura dances in her wedding dress before shedding it and rising to the flies, where five other bridal gowns dangle, all destined to drop when Desdemona is killed. It’s powerful imagery for a powerful message.