DVD & CD reviews

OTELLO, by Rossini;THE GAMBLER, by Prokofiev: CANTATAS 82, 83, 125, 200 by Bach .

by BRADLEY WINTERTON  /  Contributing reporter

Thu, Apr 10, 2014 - Page 11

For every hundred people familiar with Verdi’s Otello there are probably only two or three who know Rossini’s opera of the same name composed 71 years earlier. This is a pity because it’s a fine work, and its excellence is fully brought out in a new DVD from Zurich Opera House starring Cecilia Bartoli.

It’s a very different opera from Verdi’s. Shakespeare started his tragedy in Venice, then moved the action to Cyprus. Verdi and his librettist ignored the Venice material, but Rossini sets his entire opera there. Rodrigo becomes more important, and Iago less so. The handkerchief becomes an intercepted letter, and only the final scene appears almost fully Shakespearean, though even there the ending is very rapid, lacking the crucial farewell speech Shakespeare gives his protagonist.

Directors Mosche Leiser and Patrice Caurier update the work to the 1960s in what appears to be an officers’ mess. With almost everyone in either evening dress or military uniform, and on a sparsely-furnished stage, the soloists are left to make their points without undue clutter (the chorus has only a small part in the opera).

Celilia Bartoli as Desdemona is, of course, the star. She’s excellent in every way. Her vocal pyrotechnics are as usual stunning, and it was only when she was made to write a message on her bedroom wall with a felt-tip pen that disbelief was reluctantly unsuspended. The orchestra, using period instruments, is presided over by Chinese conductor Tang Muhai (湯沐海).

Javier Camarena makes a superb Rodrigo, and John Osborn a muted but affecting Otello. (It’s significant that he and Bartoli sang opposite each other in Bellini’s Norma at the Salzburg Festival in 2013, in a production by the same pair of directors). I have to admit, though, that I was surprised when Osborn, rather than Bartoli, was implicitly awarded star status by being the last to appear at the curtain-calls.

Prokofiev’s operas might, like Campari, be an acquired taste, but it isn’t, in either case, a taste that’s hard to acquire. There are usually no melodies as such, but much of interest in the inventive orchestral scores. Prokofiev based The Gambler on Dostoyevsky’s novel of that name, a potboiler written in a hurry to pay off his own gambling debts. Prokofiev completed his opera in 1917, but the Russian Revolution of that year got in the way of the planned premier.

What’s striking about the work is the way it’s balanced awkwardly between seriousness and comedy. This may be rooted in the Dostoyevsky original, as Dostoyevsky was both a compulsive gambler and an artist aiming to expose the frustrations and disappointments of the pursuit. Also, human beings, it seems, require either sad or happy endings, but this opera provides neither. The impoverished hero finally breaks the bank at the casino, but his girlfriend refuses his offer of huge amounts of money and walks off in a huff.

This production from St. Petersburg’s Marinsky Theater keeps the setting in the mid-19th century but dispenses with anything in the way of elaborate scenery. This works well enough, however, until the casino scene near the end where the absence of a roulette table leads to some farcical miming by croupier and gamblers alike.

The plot involves characters who are either attracted to one of the other characters or owe him or her money. It’s confusing at first, but a quick check of the plot on Wikipedia soon sorts things out. Thereafter it’s relatively plain sailing.

Vladimir Galuzin as Alexei, a private tutor and the gambler of the title, is the star of the show. His committed acting, inextricably blended with his powerful singing, carries all before it. Tatiana Pavlovskaya as his beloved, Polina, is also very strong, and Valery Gergiev conducts with aplomb. The recorded sound is of the highest quality. All in all, this Gambler amply repays investigation.

Finally, the last of four CDs of Bach’s church cantatas, three of which I discussed last month. This one contains works composed for the Feast of the Purification of Mary, 2nd February, commemorating the day Joseph and Mary went to the temple for her “purification” after childbirth. In Shakespeare’s day it was called Candlemas. At the temple they met Simeon who uttered the prayer known as the “Nunc dimittis.” Simeon had been promised he wouldn’t die before seeing the Messiah, so his words have been understood as embracing a contented death. The elderly prophetess Anna was also present, and the scene has frequently been depicted in paintings.

The most famous of these cantatas is BWV 82, Ich habe genug or “I have enough” (see my last review for an explanation of the BWV numbers). It’s for solo bass, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded it three times. The bass here, Peter Harvey, isn’t a Fischer-Dieskau, but is nonetheless more than adequate for the task. The occasion’s combination, however, of acquiescence and lugubriousness, doesn’t necessarily please, though Bach cheers things up in his final movement.

More attractive for me was BWV 83, the first cantata Bach wrote for this festival, where the buoyant enthusiasm of the third movement, for tenor (Paul Agnew) with violin accompaniment, is much more to my taste. BWV 200 is a fragment, a single alto aria (sung here by countertenor Robin Tyson), and even that is an arrangement by Bach of another composer’s work.

My favorite of these “Purification” cantatas (which I only got to know properly this week) is BWV 125. It has exceptional dynamism and variety, encompassing the sweetness of the paired flute and oboe d’amore in the alto aria (track 12 on this CD), and especially the remarkable duo aria (track 14) in which tenor and bass compete in vocal complexity to a vigorous string accompaniment.