Rossini - Otello, ossia il moro di Venezia

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday April 29 2012

Concert performance

Conductor: Evelino Pidò. Otello: Gregory Kunde. Desdemona: Anna Caterina Antonacci. Elmiro: Giovanni Furlanetto. Rodrigo: Dmitry Korchak: Jago: Dario Schmunck. Emilia: Josè Maria Lo Monaco. Lucio: Stefan Cifolelli. Doge/Un Gondoliere: Tansel Akzeybek. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie.

Ana Caterina Antonacci has only to sing one note for me to think (settling snugly into my seat and, for once, looking forward to a feast): “At last, a real voice!” But what’s a “real” voice? Years ago I remember reading a lengthy attempt (by Gombrich or Pevsner or Clark or someone like that; I tried to find it again yesterday but couldn’t) to define art, that still ended with a cop-out along the lines of ”Anyway, when you’ve had enough of it, you know it when you see it.” After hundreds of opportunities, over the years, to leave at the interval, bored by bland voices and non-existent acting, you know a real voice when you hear one. Antonacci’s is deep; not deep in tone, like a plummy alto (far from it, her sound is liquid and limpid), but deep like a pool or a cavern might be: open and inviting you in to explore and discover an infinite variety of colours, shapes, shades… Or you might also say complex, in the way wines or perfumes are said to be, and full of “notes” – not the kind on the stave, though she tosses those off, however many, as if they were the least thing to care about. On Sunday afternoon, though nothing was announced, she clearly wasn’t well, clutching a handkerchief to her mouth and drinking water (has La Monnaie no glasses? Or do singers prefer to swig from a plastic bottle?). Even so, her "Willow Song" – a potentially droopy piece if ever there was one - was at once supremely elegant and yet tensely dramatic. Why the harp was miked, with Antonacci subdued and in any case making the best possible (i.e. meaningful, not just mannered) use of mezza voce, is a mystery: the imbalance was obvious.

Then there were the three tenors. Casting difficulties are presumably the main reason we don’t often see Otello on the schedules*. All you need are the three best...

Gregory Kunde is still one of those. He’s no longer young, but experience has its uses, allowing him to phrase and shape and colour even the most punishing passages: as we all know, Rossini wasn’t kind to tenors but wrote scores that tease them cruelly. The smokiness or huskiness in his timbre, especially at the top, suited the part, and both his mature artfulness and this gruffness of tone contrasted well with the bright, valiant and to some extent naive (i.e. still relatively can belto rather than subtle) youthfulness of Dmitry Korchak, a 33-year-old Russian, new to me and the afternoon’s “one to watch”. During the “duel” between Otello and Rodrigo, is that a top D, or an E flat? Korchak nailed it  - and was applauded at length, which is rare at La Monnaie.

Our Iago, Dario Schmunck, had the notes but his voice was more pinched and projected less. Perhaps downstairs it was more audible. Whenever singers at La Monnaie are placed in front of the pit (which here was raised to stage level), as for the needlessly complicated staging, in 2009, of Gluck’s two Iphigénies, their voices struggle to make it up to the balconies. It might have been better to raise the pity only halfway and put the soloists behind, on the apron.

Emilia doesn’t really get enough in this score to judge from, but Josè Maria Lo Monaco seemed fine enough. Only Giovanni Furlanetto was a disappointment – not that an inadequate Elmiro will ruin your afternoon: this opera is for the tenors and Desdemona.

Nice detail for an Otello: the Doge and offstage gondolier were sung (very well, by the way) by a Turk.

Just as you know a real voice when you hear one, there are times when you just sense a conductor’s total mastery of a score. Pidò was in his element here and, by treating the music with as much care and respect as you would Mozart, reminded us how much Mozart there is in Rossini’s wonderfully detailed, delicate scores. The Brussels orchestra responded accordingly: I don’t think I’ve ever heard them so good. The horn soloist must have practised for ages to get his big number note perfect and the woodwind section chattered and chirped beautifully from the start, in one of Rossini’s wittiest overtures. If only they hadn’t amplified the harp...

*As La Monnaie's website puts it: "Le casting de ce tour de force virtuosissimo du belcanto place toute maison d’opéra devant un défi passionnant". That "passionnant" is what's known as "spin".

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