Just as Rossini’s version of Il barbiere di Siviglia completely eclipsed Paisiello’s version, so Verdi’s Otello sounded the death knell for an earlier version; ironically enough by Rossini. It’s a bit surprising as the Rossini version is not bad at all despite having a rather patchy libretto and being hard to cast. The first thing one notices is that the story isn’t even close to Shakespeare/Verdi. This is because the libretto was based on a French play by Jean-François Ducis that was popular in the 18th century. I don’t know whether the plot’s weaknesses are due to Ducis or the librettist but there are a few. There’s no Cassio so the motivation for Jago’s plotting is unclear. All the Venetian notables (bar perhaps the Doge) hate Otello but Jago doesn’t seem to have any special reason for animosity. Between the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 Otello is exiled. There is no explanation. The finale is abrupt and weak. Immediately after Otello kills Desdemona the gang of notables burst in to the room and appear to be completely reconciled to Otello and to him marrying Desdemona, despite having spent the rest of the opera chewing chips about this. In fact one could argue that the happy ending variant (yes, there was one) is the more plausible as it would only take the guys to arrive about ten bars sooner for that to be the logical outcome. As it is, Otello listens with incredulity to the change of heart and, not unreasonably, kills himself.
Handel’s Giulio Cesare is pretty well served in terms of video recordings. The very fine Glyndebourne and Copenhagen versions get some serious competition from the 2012 production that inaugurated Cecilia Bartoli’s reign as director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. The production is by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier. It’s set in somewhere like Iraq in an immediately post-war period. It’s quite dark, probably darker than Negrin’s in Copenhagen and world’s away from McVicar’s almost RomCom version. There’s a lot of violence and some pretty sleazy sex. A lot of this centres around Tolomeo who is portrayed as beyond revolting. There’s a scene where he rips guts out of a statue of Caesar and starts to gnaw on them and there is a fair bit in that vein. Caesar and Cleopatra are portrayed ambiguously too. Sure they are the “heroes” of the piece but Cleopatra’s delight in flogging off her country’s oil wealth to the Romans shows a degree of cynicism. This is not a production for the Konzept averse but I think all the choices made have a point and the overall effect is coherent. It’s not without humour either. Cleopatra sings V’adore pupille in a 70s blonde wig while riding a cruise missile with Caesar watching through 3D glasses.
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is extremely silly. It’s a crazy, gender bending romp with no real substance but plenty of rather crude humour and good tunes. I suspect it’s beyond the wit of any director than do more than make sure the mad cap elements are mad enough but one is, I suppose, bound to try. For their 2012 production in Zürich, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier chose to set the piece in immediately post war France. It works well enough and allows for a few visual gags but it doesn’t really add much to the piece. Nor, though, does it detract.
Cecilia and Bryn at Glyndebourne is the DVD recording of a concert from 1999 featuring two of those singers who prove you don’t have to be dead skinny to be a great singer and have a commanding stage presence. It’s great fun, focussing on the lighter end of the repertoire for the most part. It’s mostly Mozart with some Rossini, Donizetti, Haydn and Handel thrown in. There are a couple of overtures and a few arias but the greatest pleasure comes in the duets. For the second time in a week I got to see Lá ci darem la mano sung by singers of extremely contrasting heights and where else is one going to see Mr. Terfel and Ms. Bartoli sing the Pa-pa-pa-pa duet from Die Zauberflöte. As ever Ceci’s coloratura is a thing of wonder and Bryn is no slouch. The accompaniment is ably provided by Myung-Whun Chung and the London Philharmonic. It’s the perfect antidote to a week of watching Wozzeck.
Robert Carsen’s clean, refined production of Handel’s Semele originated in Aix, was recorded in Zürich and eventually made it’s way to Vienna and Chicago. In many ways it is classic Carsen. It’s elegant and uncluttered, is strong on the detailed Personenregie, has a consistent design concept but isn’t really pushing a concept driven agenda. It’s also quite funny without descending to priapic donkeys. Also there are lots of chairs.
I don’t suppose anybody watches a Rossini comedy for profundity or great insights into human nature but there’s no denying that done well they can be great fun. This 2002 performance of Il Turco in Italia from the Opernhaus Zürich certainly manages to be that.
The basic plot is predictably silly and full of stock characters; gypsies, flirty young wife, dim older husband, lecherous Turk etc. but wrapped around this is the idea of a poet who is recording what he is seeing as the basis for a new play while, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, trying to influence the action to meet his needs. It’s quite clever and often very funny.