A Story That Improves With the WCO's Otelloing

The Washington Concert Opera brought out the best in Rossini's
The Washington Concert Opera brought out the best in Rossini's "Otello." (By Don Lassell)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

With the exception of several settings of the "Faust" legend and of the lovely Greek myth about Orpheus and his lost Eurydice, there are very few stories that have been turned into successful operas more than once. We never hear the version of "La Boheme" that was created by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, for example, although it was fashioned by a popular and skillful composer. No, Puccini simply owns the "Boheme" franchise and he probably always will.

Likewise, Gioacchino Rossini's "Otello" (1816) cannot hold the stage with the familiar setting of Shakespeare's play that Giuseppe Verdi created with his librettist Arrigo Boito some 70 years later. The Verdi-Boito creation is a taut masterpiece of music drama: Rossini's opera is merely a collection of arias, duets and ensembles, built around a flaccid and utterly unworthy retelling of Shakespeare's great tragedy.

And yet most of the music in this earlier "Otello" is absolutely wonderful -- full of luscious melodies, astonishing invention and spectacular opportunities for virtuoso singers. Washington Concert Opera's performance of this rarely heard piece, which took place Sunday night at Lisner Auditorium under the direction of Antony Walker, made for an exhilarating evening, and I wish it were happening all over again tonight, tomorrow and the next night, for I would be there.

Indeed, WCO's presentations of lesser-known operas, always worthy occasions, have lately become an essential part of Washington's musical life, events that deserve national -- even international -- attention. A capacity audience found it well worth its while to put up with the stifling heat inside the auditorium for more than three hours -- and stayed to cheer.

As she does so often, soprano Elizabeth Futral stood out. She was a marvelous Desdemona -- her tone just as fresh and sweet at the end of the evening as it was at the beginning, her vocal agility absolutely secure, showy runs and stratospheric high notes always yoked to genuine musical and dramatic feeling -- a coloratura soprano who never descends into inane birdy twittering.

The evening's discovery was tenor Kenneth Tarver, who played Otello's rival, Rodrigo. He has a healthy, ringing, fluent high tenor voice of considerable beauty and freedom; no wonder he is already singing at the Metropolitan Opera, at Covent Garden in London, and with the Cleveland and Boston symphony orchestras.

One of the peculiarities of this particular opera is that the three leading male roles -- Rodrigo, Iago and the central character of Otello -- are all given to tenors. (Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras might have done very well had they adapted this for one of their "Three Tenors" extravaganzas.) Bruce Ford made a strong showing as Otello, singing with urgency, command and fierce artistic intelligence. Tanner Knight's voice is not especially lustrous, but he used it with skill and spirit in the role of the evil Iago and made a fine partner in any number of duets and ensembles.

Mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle made an intense and touching Emilia, and bass-baritone David Langan boomed authoritatively as Elmiro. There was adept support from Patrick Toomey and Peter Burroughs (both of them tenors!). Walker conducted the sometimes patchy but more often eager and energetic WCO Orchestra with his customary mixture of propulsion and sensitivity -- he keeps things moving but is not afraid to linger over especially lovely passages -- and there was sure support from the chorus.

One oddity: The decision to skip the Overture entirely. But since much of this was borrowed from the well-known overture to "Il Turco in Italia" and the lesser-known "Sigismondo," it was not the dismaying emendment that it might have been.

The fatuity of choosing the most glorious moments in this "Otello" might be likened to selecting a "favorite" Alp, but I will admit that the finale of Act 2 always makes me smile. Here we find the patented "Rossini crescendo" -- a favorite technique in which the composer isolates a marvelous little module of music, and then repeats it three times, ever increasing in volume and intensity -- that always works so well in Rossini's comic operas, adapted successfully for a moment of high seriousness. What a genius this man was, and we still don't know the half of him. This was the 19th of Rossini's operas -- and he had yet to turn 25 when he wrote it.

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