I went to a production of Rossini’s “Otello” at the New York City Opera (now sadly defunct) in 1982. At the time I didn’t even know that Rossini had written an “Otello”. The programme note revealed it was his 19th opera, written when he was 24 years old. It was first performed in Naples in 1816 and was popular in Europe throughout the 19th Century – until it was replaced by Verdi’s “Otello”, which premiered in 1887. Rossini had died in 1868 so didn’t know his opera had been supplanted in much the same way his “Barber of Seville” dispatched the version by Paisiello.
On that day, sometime in 1982, I came out of the theatre at the Lincoln Centre stunned by Rossini’s opera. Intensely dramatic, with well defined characters ( including Rodrigo now promoted to a major role – Rossini and his librettist Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa were unaware of the Shakespeare play) and a series of vivid and tuneful arias, duets, trios and quartets . The finale, the death of Desdemona during a thunderstorm, I found devastating. Luckily, the NYCO were performing the original version and not the “happy ending” version that Rossini provided for romantically inclined audiences.
Since the superb version by Verdi was established the Rossini version has been rarely performed, virtually disappearing from the world’s opera stages until a production in Pesaro in 1988, and another with Cecilia Bartoli and John Osborn in Zurich in 2012.
It seems possible, even probable, that Rossini’s “Otello” will sneak back into the regular opera repertoire, just as his “Cenerentola” and “William Tell” have done over the past few years.
It has been an exciting time for me working with the Melbourne Opera team on the first Australian production of Rossini’s striking work.
— Bruce Beresford