Those familiar with Verdi’s monumental operahouse staple “Otello” got a rare chance Wednesday at Carnegie Hall to hear the version composed 71 years earlier by Gioachino Rossini. Written just after “The Barber of Seville” in Rossini’s ornate bel canto style, it is as unremittingly dark as “Barber” is frivolous. Almost an ensemble opera, with long stretches featuring supporting characters, it does not touch the heart as deeply as Verdi’s masterpiece. But it’s a worthy work, brimming with melody and opportunities for masterful singing. Opera Orchestra of New York’s maestra Eve Queler assembled a fine cast for the occasion.
Rossini, unfortunately, was born too soon to have the brilliant Arrigo Boito as his librettist. For Verdi, Boito was able to condense Shakespeare’s play into a mere 800 lines while preserving and even clarifying action and motivation. Rossini’s librettist, Francesco Berio di Salsa, gave Othello far less stage time, focusing as much on Desdemona’s conflict with her father as on the familiar jealousy theme. He also conflated Cassio and Roderigo into one character and kept all the action in Venice.
Rossini’s score is stirring, but in its limited musical idiom it lacks the kaleidoscopic emotional palette that Verdi was to employ with such genius. Matters were not helped Wednesday night by Queler’s foursquare, uninspired conducting, which often put a dull edge on climaxes.
Tenor Ramon Vargas originally was scheduled to sing the title role but bowed out a week before due to illness. He was replaced by Bruce Ford, a Rossini specialist who has sung the role many times onstage in Europe and on record. Though stylistically adept, Ford seemed to be a bit past his prime vocally, just missing the chance to make a memorable impression in the part.
Rossini called for no fewer than six tenors to fill the cast of “Otello.” Queler managed to wrangle five, using one singer for two of the smaller roles. Remarkably, all were of high quality. Standout among them was Kenneth Tarver as Roderigo. Tarver’s blessed with an attractive stage presence and a lovely, effortlessly produced voice that had no trouble meeting Rossini’s stratospheric demands.
As Iago, Robert McPherson displayed a tenor that, while not classically beautiful in timbre, was nonetheless thrilling, with a huge, house-filling bloom that points the way toward weightier spinto roles in his future. Gaston Rivero poured firm, strong tone into the small role of the Doge and made the even smaller part of a passing Venetian gondolier a thing of haunting beauty.
In the thankless role of Otello’s page Lucio, Guillermo Lagundino seemed a bit stiff but delivered a prodigious torrent of sound. The cast’s lone bass-baritone, Daniel Mobbs, brought elegant phrasing and full, opulent low notes to the part of Desdemona’s father, Elmiro.
Romanian lyric mezzo Ruxandra Donose made a rare New York appearance as Desdemona. Hers was the most compelling vocal acting of the evening, and her voice was rich, warm and even throughout Rossini’s numerous rapid-fire staccato roulades. She interpreted this difficult music with crystalline precision, with the individual notes standing out like pearls on a string. Tall, elegant and glamorous, she was a pleasure to watch as well.
Mezzo Maria Zifchak, a constant and welcome presence in New York, was a sympathetic Emilia. Her sound is neither large nor lush, but it has a focused, penetrating quality that carries beautifully into the far reaches of Carnegie Hall.
Queler’s decision to heavily cut Rossini’s score was a questionable one. The evening came in at 3¼ hours — not overly long by operatic standards. Nearly all of the singers were cheated of key scenes, with Mobbs and Zifchak suffering the most.