Otello in Florence – no undivided pleasure

OTELLO — It’s a good thing, an important thing, that theatres are trying to keep alive the idea that opera must be performed in full, with sets, costumes, lights and all the elements of the show – even though it’s sad, that the singers and the musicians are forced to do their jobs without an audience.

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Otello. Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi to an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on Shakespeare’s play Othello. First performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 5 February 1887. Reviewed performance (RAI stream): 30 November, Teatro del Maggio, Florence.

Otello: Fabio Sartori
Desdemona: Marina Rebeka
Jago: Luca Salsi
Cassio: Riccardo Della Sciucca
Roderigo: Francesco Pittari
Lodovico: Alessio Cacciamani
Montano: Francesco Milanese
Un araldo: Francesco Samuele Venuti
Emilia: Caterina Piva

Orchestra and Choir of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Conductor: Zubin Mehta
Director: Valerio Binasco

Muziek: *4*
Regie:  *2*

The Teatro del Maggio in Florence has bravely attempted to stage an important production of Verdi’s Otello, and the fact that the opera was telecast by RAI has allowed a lot of people to watch it, though we’re well aware that for true fans, opera on television has little in common with in-house opera.

The opera was staged with a cast of renowned artists and was allegedly a very expensive production. It remains to be seen whether the attempt was successful and if the result lived up to expectations.

In our opinion, this did not fully happen, for several reasons. First, the story is set in modern, but rather undefined times… which, unfortunately, is more the rule than the exception these days. The sets, always far too gloomy, even when they should be happier and brighter, as in the garden scene in Act Two, showed a Cyprus that almost resembled a war zone. Actually, the director, in his notes, mentions Bosnia and Syria, which in truth have very little to do with the Cyprus in which the opera takes place.

The uniforms made us vaguely think of the First World War, while the costumes of the choir – singing with masks, due to COVID-19 – were completely anonymous and timeless. Nevertheless, inexplicably, Otello disembarked to sing his “Esultate!” dressed in a suit of armour, and even some armigers wore costumes evoking the late fourteenth century. This “detail” remains mysterious, and has no link whatsoever with the rest of the opera, since Otello sings most of his role in a shirt, trousers and a vest, accentuating the director’s decision to favour the issue of a conjugal drama, rather than the cosmic tragedy of the triumph of evil.

But what’s really wrong (we would say almost offensive to those who love and know Verdi and Shakespeare), is the director’s distortion of the Desdemona character. Wanting to transport her to “modern” times, he changes a sweet girl, innocent on the verge of naivety, in love and submissive to her “superb warrior”, into an aggressive, rebellious woman who goes to the completely incongruous extreme of slapping her husband’s face. We believe that Marina Rebeka, the Lithuanian soprano we had admired in September in La Traviata at La Scala, was seriously penalized by this “reading” of Desdemona. Luckily, at a certain point the music must prevail over the directors’ whims, and the soprano manages to give us a very delicate and truly moving Canzone del Salice and Ave Maria, which we found (and we’re not the only ones) the most beautiful moment of the whole show.
Fabio Sartori – in recent years one of the tenors most present at La Scala – in his debut as Otello, tries very hard to fit in a role that largely feels like it isn’t particularly suited to his voice, his temperament or his physical appearance for that matter. Of course, a singer should not be judged by his looks, but since, like it or not, we have now entered the era of opera on television, it’s natural that the audience also develop some minimal requirements from an aesthetic point of view. And we cannot avoid noticing how Sartori sadly fails to reach the acceptable minimum. Only a great vocal performance could make the audience forget the low credibility of an obese Otello. There is evidently a reason why Otello is universally considered the culminating role in a tenor’s career, and there have been great artists – Franco Corelli above all – who shied away from facing it. We admire Sartori’s courage, but for the moment we have only listened to a highly committed performance, a correct and willing one, which ended with the tenor having to also overcome some difficulties mostly due to the extended tempos often imposed by the conductor. The future will tell us if it’s a role that can fully and successfully enter his repertoire.

As for the other protagonists, as Iago, Luca Salsi confirms our opinion that he lacks the elegance, refinement and phrasing that are the hallmarks of a true Verdi baritone. All in all, his Iago made us think more of a brutal soldier than a subtly treacherous weaver of intrigues.

The young tenor Riccardo Della Sciucca is a Cassio gifted with a good voice, but with rather conventional and sometimes awkward acting. Caterina Piva’s performance as Emilia was very good, affectionate and caring with Desdemona, determined and defiant with Otello in the finale. Francesco Pittari as Roderigo, Alessio Cacciamani as Lodovico, Francesco Milanese as Montano and Francesco Samuele Venuti, a herald, made their worthy professional contributions to the performance. The choir, compelled to sing with masks on and respect social distancing, also deserves special mention.

As we have mentioned, Zubin Mehta, a conductor who undoubtedly knows all the nooks and crannies of the score, gave us an intense, meticulous, often exciting reading, but he sometimes enlarges the tempos a bit too much, especially in the first act, taking away a little dynamism from the action. The orchestra, distanced and, where possible, masked, like the choir, nevertheless lives up well to the director’s and the long-distance audience’s expectations.

Marina Boagno

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Marina Boagno


Marina Boagno acted for many years as an amateur talent scout, organizing concerts, and creating and directing events. Author of "Franco Corelli – Un uomo, una voce" (1990) and a biography of Ettore Bastianini’s, “Una Voce di Bronzo e di Velluto” (2003).

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