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Paris. Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. 7-IV-2014. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) Otello. Directed by: Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier. Sets: Christian Fenouillat. Costumes: Agostino Cavalca. Lights: Christophe Forey. With : John Osborn, Otello ; Cecilia Bartoli, Desdemona ; Edgardo Rocha, Rodrigo ; Barry Banks, Iago ; Peter Kálmán, Elmiro ; Liliana Nikiteanu, Emilia ; Nicola Pamio, the Doge ; Enguerrand de Hys, a gondolier. Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Chorus (Chorus Master: Gildas Pungier). Ensemble Matheus. Conductor: Jean-Christophe Spinosi
Parisian intellectuals have the habit of booing the direction at all openings, as if it were their only reason for buying a ticket in the first place. To walk in their footsteps is not the point. Indeed, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s work was rather more interesting than usual.
The action shifts to an undetermined, contemporary date. The first act takes place in the anteroom of an official building with many doors. One of these doors opens on the room where a party in honor of Otello, who has just won a battle against the Turks for the Venetian Republic, takes place. This geographical placement is a clever way to unroll the many speeches and, aside from that expository scene, in perfect harmony with the music. Meanwhile, a black waiter suffers regular humiliations.
The following acts took place in turns in Desdemona’s bedroom, within the decrepit ocher walls of a Venetian palace, and Otello’s place, a kind of seedy café where Berber music is playing. This is what the directors were looking after: modernizing the play in order for the audience to understand how different Otello the Moor is, and to make the reasons of his murderous jealousy clear. Was it necessary? useful? clever? This would be too much praise, but at least, they have spared us another boring production with static actors between Corinthian columns. Theirs did not deserve the wrath of an ill-mannered audience, all too ready to boo to show that their intelligence is above normal, that they won’t be fooled.
A few whistles were addressed to the conductor Jean-Christophe Spinosi. He was very fast and nervous, but took care of the singers. Once the ears are attuned to the sharp sounds of the Ensemble Matheus, it is not unpleasant to listen to, apart from the discordant clarinet and horns. Once again, the question has to be asked: is it not excessively dogmatic to demand natural horns when it is well-known that they will stand out in a bad way, however good the player is?
John Osborn’s ‘baritenor’ voice may not be the same as what Chris Merritt or Bruce Ford have accustomed us to hear. Only nigglers will find something to discuss here, for its beautiful tone, sunny it its high notes and steady in its low ones, conveyed the same shivering sensation. Edgardo Rocha is a nice tenor with his suave voice, but he is not big enough to play Rodrigo. His singing exercises in particular exhibited a sore lack of clarity. He is a promising singer, but more suited to Bellini than to Rossini, or so it seems.
On the other hand, Cecilia Bartoli had no problems with Desdemona’s part: breathtaking in the passages of pure virtuosity, moving during the willow tune, hers was a masterful performance. With the help of old accomplices Leiser and Caurier, she turned the sweet and doleful heroin created by librettist Francesco Berio di Salsa into an emancipated and strong-willed woman.
Barry Banks’s tone is not the most pleasant in the world, but he has a perfect knowledge of the Rossinian style and knew how to unfold all the deviousness of Iago. There is nothing bad to say about Peter Kálmán’s Elmiro.