Otello from Opera in the Heights: Downright Electrifying

The set-up:

After hearing Opera in the Heights's stirring production of Gioacchino Rossini's 1816 "lyric tragedy," based very broadly on Shakespeare's mighty drama of jealousy, you will wonder, as did I, why this opera lies forgotten, a rarity among his many magnificent works (Barber of Seville, Italian Girl in Algiers, Semiramide, William Tell). OH revives this opera like it were Lazarus. For all its many beauties, believe me, this is an extremely difficult piece to pull off since Rossini casts it with -- count them -- three treacherous coloratura tenor roles: Otello, Iago, and Rodrigo. This is to say nothing about the soprano part of Desdemona, another filigree role; an agile bass part in Elmiro, Desdemona's father; and a lovely mezzo role for Desdemona's maid, Emilia. There are countless vocal roulades and fireworks, runs up and down the scale, many high Cs, and, if I'm not mistaken, at least one incredible E above C for Rodrigo. It wasn't effortless, but it was there. That OH gave this work a distinctively spellbinding reading is just short of miraculous.

The execution:

Once you get over the shock that Shakespeare's immortal masterpiece has been turned into a stereotypical Italian opera of the early 19th century, where minor character Rodrigo, now in love with Desdemona, is given more stage time than leading man Otello, you can relax into Rossini's masterful orchestration and sure dramatic stagecraft. By the time of Otello's premiere in Naples, Rossini was 24 years old, famous as Italy's reigning composer, and rich as a rock star. He had at his disposal the renowned San Carlo Opera House, where he was its musical director (and took a share of its lucrative gambling profits) and had his choice of any singer he wanted. At that time, there was a glut of exceptional tenors, so it seemed only natural to use as many as possible, which he did for this adaptation.

OH updates the action to Venice in 1985, overlaying the basic misplaced love plot with a mafia backstory. This clever move does no harm at all to the tale, seeing that Shakespeare doesn't really make much of an appearance anyway. There are enough open shirts and gold chains to prop a new season of The Sopranos. The men fight with shivs, and Otello's tribute to the Doge is a packet of cocaine. As this year is OH's tribute to musical works based on Shakespeare (Bellini's Capulets and Montagues, Verdi's Macbeth and Falstaff are due later), scenic designer Rachel Smith has outfitted Lambert Hall with a unit set inspired by the Bard's own Globe, with faux painted columns, balcony space, tiring room doors, and wattle and daub back wall. It's a handsome look for the series and serves the work well.

Rossini operas fall between the sublime Mozart and the equally sublime Verdi, and you can hear the continuing history of opera swirl through his work as novel musical ideas catch on and take fire. Rossini was one of the first to orchestrate the recitative passages, those "dialogue" scenes once accompanied by harpsichord or violin, and his Otello has passages of exceptional beauty, rivaled only by the wealth of emotional arias for each of the principals, as well as stirring choral work. The opera flows and just gets better and better as it goes along, tightening the grip around poor Desdemona, who's clueless as to why husband Otello is hell-bent for jealousy. There's not much subtlety in characterization, nor much Elizabethan poetry in Berio's libretto, but the bare-bones approach to Shakespeare distills the tragedy into easily digestible chunks. Rossini supplies the tasty sauce.

As in the play, Iago initiates the green-eyed monster, setting it upon its inevitable crash course, but he disappears much too soon in the opera. He's sung so magnificently by Brent Reilly Turner that we miss his evil ways and mellifluous dark tenor voice. (The role as written could almost be sung by baritone, and the deeper voice would, years later, lead to those sterling baritone parts composed so memorably by Verdi.) The same might be said of mezzo Ann Sauder, as Emilia. Her velvety tone has a special deep-dish quality that plays wonderfully on the ear, caressing it really. Her role isn't developed in the libretto except to be a wallflower to Desdemona. Whenever you think she's finally going to get her big moment, librettist Berio spins her out the room. But Beckham does wonders with the part, even when misdirected to read a book on her divan instead of paying attention to Desdemona in her final desperate minutes of need.

Eric Barry, as Otello, has Pavarotti heft but much better stage command as well as an equally impressive lyric tenor. Since the plot's been updated, "African" Otello has become an Italian mafia general, which cleverly finesses his Moorness, even though the surtitles have not been purged of references to his race. (There are times in opera when you just have to believe.) Luke Grooms, as Rodrigo, gets the most difficult role, as each of his strenuous arias is loaded with high-lying treacherous fioritura. One has to leap from one high note to the next like the most adept ibex, and possess the breath control of Houdini. It takes prestidigitation of the vocal cords to make this stuff work, for it's well-nigh impossible to make it sound easy. When singing more softly, Grooms sails through the pyrotechnics, but the effort shows when he goes all out. Only someone like superstar countertenor David Daniels could possibly navigate through these shoals with greater aplomb, though. So hats off to Mr. Grooms.

Sarah Beckham, as Desdemonia, brings crystalline clarity to downtrodden wife of Otello. Originally written for European star Isabella Colbran, Rossini's mistress and soon-to-be wife, her role intensifies as the opera gets going, and her "Willow Song" finale, sung to haunting harp arpeggios, is one of opera's most heartfelt goodbyes. Beckham looks great, too, in her Maggie-the-cat slip with her hair down, a la Liz Taylor. That she's comically chased around the bedroom by her knife-wielding husband doesn't dim her charm nor her immense vocal polish. Joseph Rawley, as Desdemona's father, has stentorian heft and abundance of legato phrasing that augments his rich bass voice. He cuts right through the orchestration.

Maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo whips up this rare score with passion and finesse, as if he's been conducting this all his life, drawing volcanic roulades from the strings or the mellowest of whispers from the horns and reeds. He lets Rossini breathe, while also keeping him on tight dramatic rein. The OH Chorus, which has some new faces, sounds very fine indeed.

The verdict:

Opera in the Heights gets its season off to a magnificent start with a sparkling performance of this rare Rossini gem. It might not be Shakespeare, but I swear this dusty old diamond was downright electrified.

Rossini's nineteenth opera runs nimbly up the down the scales October 4 and 6. The Emerald cast (October 5 and 7) stars Fabian Robles as Otello, Jessica Jones as Desdemona, and Eric Bowden as Rodrigo. Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd. To purchase tickets, visit the company website or call 713-861-5303. $10-$55.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover