Rossini’s Otello in Malta

Rossini’s Otello provides a major challenge for smaller opera houses, not the least because it requires five tenors capable of singing the composer’s often florid and high-lying tessitura. And, in dramatic terms, it falls well short of Verdi’s treatment of the same subject which is closer to the Shakespeare original and benefits from Boito’s wonderfully taut libretto. Rossini and his librettist Berio di Salsa relied on a diffuse and loose French adaptation of the play which dispenses with Cassio, reduces Iago to a rather pale, inconsequential figure and engages in much, often tiresome, intrigue between the Venetian nobles. That said, there is much to admire in Rossini’s score which imaginatively contrasts fiery, emotional interplay with languid, nostalgic reverie and quiet, touching pathos.

In Valletta’s small but very beautiful Teatru Manoel, built in 1731, the conductor Marco Mencoboni had no difficulty in drawing the audience’s attention to the variety of musical effects. There was sprightly forward-moving energy in the orchestra, tempered by a steady pulse and studied delivery of the delicate woodwind phrasing with its commentary on the action. There was, too, an outstanding performance from Valentina Mastrangelo as Desdemona. With a strong stage presence, she endowed the part with a forthright profile of a young woman victimised by the forces around her but in no sense willing to accept the consequence wimpishly. With her creamy, full-toned soprano she drew the emotional content from the music. The Otello, Cliff Zammit Stevens, was no match for her. He offered a two-dimensional characterisation of the role, so that his need to achieve acceptance for his colour and culture was insufficiently developed dramatically; and his light tenor did not project well enough the depth of his emotions. By way of contrast, Nico Darmanin as Rodrigo, his rival for Desdemona’s hand, had all the vocal attributes required by Rossini, a brilliant powerful instrument hitting with relish all the top notes and completely assured in coloratura ornamentation. A pity that his performance was marred by stock dramatic gestures. Among other members of the case, the mezzo of Francesca Sartorato gave pleasure, though she somewhat over-acted the role of Emilia.

In truth, the dramatic dimension was the main weakness in the performance and this was principally due to the boringly pedestrian production of Vivien Hewitt. She did not move the protagonists convincingly around the stage and during ensembles they seemed at a loss in knowing what to do. Then, in the more intimate scenes, there was a lack of dramatic tension, partly because the lighting, for which she was also responsible, was too uniform and insufficiently underpinned the action. With lavish costumes and a simple decor framing the Ca d’Oro space, there may have been efforts to present an authentic Renaissance Venice, but this was of little use when what went on inside was so flaccid.