Kenneth Tarver as Otello
Kenneth Tarver as Otello
Photo: Amanda Tipton
Central City Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's Otello completes a unique, compelling, and informative season of Shakespearean adaptations, including Romeo and Juliet and Kiss Me, Kate (The Taming of the Shrew).

Converting theatre to opera requires the librettist(s) to distill the action to provide room for extended arias, as is the case here with Francesco Berio di Salsa's 1816 libretto (based on a 1796 adaptation of the play by Jean François Ducis), which differs greatly from Shakespeare's play in that it takes place wholly in Venice, not mainly on Cyprus, with the dramatic conflict developing in a different manner, and the cast of characters trimmed down and their interplay altered. To be fair, Ducis was dependent on questionable translations, plus he never pretended to reproduce, but rather to excerpt and refashion.

Additionally, director Ashraf Sewailam has chosen to shift the story from Venice to ancient Rome, perhaps for the familiar classical trappings, although the appearance of the gondolier here is a bit of a head scratcher. Regardless, given the gist of Salsa's libretto, which emphasizes the racism of the antagonists rather than Otello's tragic flaw, jealousy, Rome is just as fitting as Venice, as Sewailam points out in his notes. Rodrigo is motivated by Desdemona's rebuff, but the sting is exacerbated by Otello's African heritage, which he and Desdemona's father, Emiro (Federico de Michelis) consider inferior to their own.

A number of other dynamics are different as well; for example, in the original stage version, Emilia picks up Desdemona's handkerchief, which Iago takes from her and later uses as proof to convince Otello that his wife has been unfaithful; whereas, in this version, during the overture, the backstory is played out in pantomime silhouettes and we see Iago take a letter from Emilia, a significant action which could easily be missed by those not familiar with the story. So, those familiar with Shake-speare's version are advised to drop any preconceived ideas about the dramatic details and enjoy this as an entirely different gestalt. Variances aside, Rossini's Otello is an important milestone in the development of opera as musical drama. It provided Verdi with a benchmark for his own adaptation of Othello (1887), which more closely follows Shake-speare's plot and characters.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez as Desdemona
Cecilia Violetta López as Desdemona
Photo: Amanda Tipton
All of that said, Rossini's music and Salsa's poetry are exquisite. Cecilia Violetta López' soaring mezzo-soprano and broad range are marvelous, giving full expression to the tragedy that has befallen Desdemona. Kenneth Tarver's rich tenor and gravitas imbues Otello with a commanding stature and fearsome military disposition. Some of the most difficult and brilliant music is assigned to the character Rodrigo, handled with aplomb by Christopher Bozeka. Bernard Holcomb's facial expressions as Iago, though less prominent in this version (in the original, he has more lines than Othello) are worth a thousand words. Emelia's support and empathy for Desdemona rings so true with Hilary Ginther's lovely soprano.

By the time the principals lie dead, we have seen how lie upon lie, by those practiced in such arts, may bring the noblest of men to mistrust their own hearts and act counter to their own interests.

Maestro John Baril and the Festival Orchestra give full breath to Puccini's epic score.

Central City Opera's production of Otello runs through Saturday, August 6th, in repertory with Romeo and Juliet and Kiss Me, Kate. For tickets:

Historical and bibliographical context of the original play

As we detailed in the addendum to our review of Central City Opera's season-opening production, every poem and play in the Shake-speare canon contains biographical information from Edward de Vere's personal and courtly experiences. Here are a few examples from Othello.

Cecilia Violetta Lopez as Desdemona and Kenneth Tarver as Otello
Cecilia Violetta López as Desdemona and Kenneth Tarver as Otello
Photo: Amanda Tipton
Othello is one of five plays (including Much Ado About Nothing, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale) in which a jealous husband suspects his wife of infidelity. In all five of these plays, the husband is proved wrong. The obsession over this storyline comes from de Vere's own life when, during his 25th and 26th years, he was travelling through Europe, and received a letter from his father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, that his wife, Anne was pregnant.

There is some speculation whether Edward and Anne's marriage was ever consumated before he left England, so this announcement came as a surprise and put de Vere in a state of mind susceptible to the suggestions of one of his foremost attendants, Rowland Yorke, who is the most likely candidate for de Vere's Iago. Yorke served as a lieutenant (the rank to which Iago aspires) in the Dutch wars of independence. York introduced a dangerous, thrusting rapier technique to England. Iago brags that he often "Yerk'd ... (opponents) under the ribs."

During his career, Yorke was found guilty of treason, forgiven, and later twice betrayed allied positions to Spain. Iago, too, is able to sustain a multitude of lies simultaneously, leveraging every situation to benefit his objective to bring down Othello.

Kenneth Tarver as Otello and Bernard Holcomb as Iago
Kenneth Tarver as Otello
and Kenneth Holcomb as Iago
Photo: Amanda Tipton
The name Iago is likely taken from Santiago (St. James), the patron saint of Spain. At the time the play was first written and produced at court as a skit (A Moor's Masque, March 3, 1579), de Vere was lobbying against a possible marriage between Elizabeth and a Spanish suitor. Later, the play was revised, as was much of the canon. It was first published in 1622 by de Vere's youngest daughter, Susan de Vere Herbert, just prior to her publication of the First Folio, years after de Vere's death, but in time to provide dissenting commentary on the potential marriage of King James' son, Prince Charles, to the Spanish Infanta Doña María. (In both cases, the issue for de Vere and his family, as well as many others, was to prevent the Catholic Church from regaining power in Britain. During Elizabeth's reign, the Spanish Armada was defeated and Britain lost many men fighting with the Dutch against Catholic forces.)

Yorke's house is where de Vere stayed when he first returned from the continent. Cecil, de Vere's one-time guardian and later father-in-law, complained that Yorke was poisoning de Vere's disposition toward Anne. De Vere thought that Anne's pregnancy, following his departure to the continent, was another man's doing. His outrage and later change of heart serve as the basis for all five aforementioned plays. The controversy over Anne's pregnancy and de Vere's actions when he returned from Europe—refusing to live with Anne and renting other quarters where he lived a bohemian life—precipitated his being exiled from court for a number of years.

Yorke died in 1588, reportedly by poison. His body was later exhumed by the Dutch, who hung it like a scarecrow, recalling the Duke's words to Cassio in the final scene (of the original stage play), to torture Iago as he wishes: "The time, the place, the torture. O, enforce it!"

While it took Burghley a few years to convince de Vere that he was the victim of a "bed trick," in which he ended up sleeping with Anne after he was well into his cups—the bed trick is an element de Vere uses in Measure for Measure—this did not end de Vere's differences with Burghley and the culture of the nobility on the institution of marriage, as we see in his arguments against arranged marriages (in Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and a number of other plays) based on his own experiences (his marriage to Anne, his affair with Vavasor, his happier second marriage, his sister's marriage, as we discuss in our review of Kiss Me, Kate) and other examples among the nobility.

Reputation is also a major theme in Othello. Burghley provided some inspiration for the approach, when he wrote "The greatest possession that any man can have is honor, good name, good will of many of the best sort." De Vere was fond of Burghley's platitudes, which are most prominent in Hamlet, with Polonius ("To thine own self be true ..."; "Neither a borrow nor a lender be ..."; etc.), but this meme shows up on the tongue of Iago:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash, 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

Additional biographical background: In the original stage play, Michael Cassio is a poke at Sir Philip Sidney, a fellow with whom de Vere had some serious run-ins and whom de Vere skewered as Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor and as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.

Bob Bows

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