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Opera Southwest triumphs with ‘Otello’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Six tenors. That’s a lot of tenors. And four need be virtuosi. But that’s the challenge Opera Southwest has chosen to accept in its new production of “Otello” by Rossini – that’s Rossini, not Verdi. That this version is difficult to cast and challenging to perform is an understatement. Written for the opera in Naples, which then had an overflow of outstanding tenors, it is a grand undertaking in all respects. OSW’s most ambition production to date, it is also its finest triumph.

Rewriting Shakespeare has long been a popular enterprise, not only in the theater but the opera house as well. Technically the opera is an adaptation of “Othello,” but if the names were changed one might not connect the two, the story having been so rewritten in the libretto by Francesco Maria Berio. One needs to approach the opera on its own terms, refraining from comparing it to the play or the later opera.

This production is perhaps unique in offering two endings, the original tragic ending and a “lieto” or happy ending, which Rossini wrote for a later production. Opening afternoon at the Journal Theater presented both together. A bit bizarre, even confusing (Desdemona rising from the dead), but something one may never see again. Subsequent productions will offer opera goers a choice. Choose your own ending? It’s a novel idea, and will certainly “get the crowd into it,” to use a sports metaphor. Will Desdemona live or die – thumbs up or down?

‘Otello’
WHEN: 7:30 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 4
WHERE: National Hispanic Cultural Center Albuquerque Journal Theatre, 1701 Fourth SW
HOW MUCH: $10 to $80 at the NHCC box office, by calling 724-4771 or 243-0591 or by visiting www.nhccnm.org or www.operasouthwest.org

If you’re expecting Otello to be the powerful domineering prince, this is bel canto opera, not the dramatic histrionics of Verdi. As opposed to requiring a near-Wagnerian stamina, this Otello needs a supple-voiced coloratura over oom-pah-pah accompaniments while still maintaining a sense of heroic charisma, no easy assignment. But Rodrick Dixon in the title role succeeds brilliantly. One could hardly ask for a more convincing Otello. While arias are scarce, the work is replete with duets. His second-act scenes and ensembles especially are stunning, his recitatives (declamations) perhaps even more viscerally emotional than the melodic portions.

Rodrigo is here a full-fledged rival for Desdemona’s love. Andrew Bidlack is the impetuous but ardent and ultimately spurned lover. Iago plays a much smaller part than in the play, but Heath Huberg, looking like a devilish Hugh Grant, still makes a powerful adversary. The booming baritone of Ricardo Lugo gives a needed gravitas (not to mention relief from all the tenors) to Elmiro, Desdemona’s father and Otello’s bitter enemy.

Soprano Sarah Asmar is the tragic (or not) heroine. Desdemona’s canzone Assissa a’ pie d’un salice (Willow song) is the musical highlight of the opera. The strophic (repeating) framework grows more elaborate with each repeat.

Seth Hartwell as Lucia, Otello’s confidante, adds his beautiful voice to the quartet of tenors. And when the company can fill a sweet, but very short, part such as the Gondolier with the quality of Javier Gonzales, it is awash in vocal riches indeed.

Rossini scholar Anthony Barrese leads an excellent group of musicians with buoyant illumination, including notable solos from Lynn Gorman-De Velder (harp) and Robbie Buss (French horn).

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