Letter from Bucharest: Verdi’s Otello Thrills at the Enescu Festival

There is perhaps no more fulfilling marriage between theater and opera than Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito’s Otello. That Shakespeare’s masterpiece found a perfect musical home in the Italian genius composer and his librettist’s oeuvre becomes even more evident when the opera is performed in concert, as it was on August 28, the second evening of the 2023 George Enescu festival at Sala Palatului. Without staging distractions except for the mesmerizing accompanying projections by Nona Ciobanu and Peter Kosir, one was able to concentrate solely on the music, and the dramatic tension of the plot simmered and electrified more intensely than ever. Naturally, this kind of thrilling musical experience is to be expected from an orchestra of the caliber of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra under the experienced direction of iconic conductor Zubin Mehta. 

Maestro Zubin Mehta receiving the National Order of Merit, grade of Commander, from the Romanian Minister of Culture, Raluca Turcan (left) – Photo: Andrei Gindac

This was a historic evening. Before the beginning of the concert, Maestro Mehta was honored with the National Order of Merit of Romania, grade of Commander, awarded by Minister of Culture Raluca Turcan on behalf of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. The eighty-seven-year-old conductor and Honorary President of the Enescu Festival beamed with joy upon receiving the honor, after which he plunged with gusto into the rousing opening of Otello, an instantly exciting showcase of the unified tremendous forces of chorus and orchestra. This vibrant start set the tone for a colossus of a performance from orchestra, chorus, and soloists. 

As Otello, tenor Fabio Sartori began in the same vein, with a glorious, stentorian “Esultate”. He displayed a penetrating vocal brilliance throughout the evening, creating a character at once heroic, temperamental, and vulnerable. In the love duet with Desdemona, Sartori’s sound mellowed into velvety sweetness without losing its biting brilliance. All in all, this Otello did indeed seem like a man on the verge of losing himself in his violent emotions. The intrinsic quality of Sartori’s voice, often stirringly overwhelming like sharp almost unbearable sunlight, served in reflecting the character’s desperate need to shed light into dark corners and get tangible proof in confirming his suspicions about Desdemona. Sartori used this harsh brightness effectively as he grappled with those suspicions and became more and more insulting of his wife. His “Dio! Mi potevi scagliar” was heart-shredding in mournful and slightly darker colors. Still, his is not a dark-voiced Otello like other tenors who sing this role. In fact, at first, the clarion radiance of Sartori’s voice did give rise to the question whether he is entirely suited for the role, as his lower register proved less imposing than would be expected. Yet Sartori made the character his own using the natural bright colors of his voice to highlight the tragedy of the Moor by showing how that very brightness destroys him. He inspires the interpretation that, through Iago’s manipulation, the brilliance of a heroic, somewhat naive personality turns into a harsh, scorching fire that consumes everything in its path including himself. 

Fabio Sartori and Anastasia Bartoli – Photo: Andrei Gindac

The manipulation of Otello played out as smoothly as melted caramel in the vocal interpretation of Luca Salsi as Iago. Insidious, serpentine, deceptively mellow while simmering with evil in slightly rugged undertones, Salsi’s rendition of Iago proved a masterpiece of acting through the voice. While he regaled the audience with a powerful sound conveying brutal cynicism in his “Credo,” Salsi never abandoned the polished seductiveness of his tones, which made his cynicism and scheming feel all the more dangerous. 

As Desdemona, Anastasia Bartoli was less nuanced than is desired for this role. She possesses a gorgeous voice, grand, luminous, and compelling, with some slightly metallic edges. The role of Desdemona offers opportunities for musical subtlety, yet Bartoli waited until “Salce, salce” and “Ave Maria” to prove that she does have the capacity to produce exquisite pianissimi and sing mezza voce.  A certain vocal flexibility, often lacking throughout the arc of her interpretation, was beautifully showcased in her last scene, which makes one wonder why the rest of the role sounded so monochromatic when she is obviously endowed with the ability to modulate beautifully between dynamics and construct phrases that offer a range of tonal colors. One can only hope that, in time, Bartoli will infuse the entire role with more expressivity and variety in dynamics. 

The cast of Otello with Maestro Zubin Mehta

As Cassio, Joseph Dahdah impressed through his beautiful tenor voice. Francesco Pittari made for a notable Rodrigo. Often covered by the orchestra, Eleonora Filipponi sang a dramatically well-intentioned but unremarkable Emilia. Adriano Gramigni displayed an imposing bass as Lodovico, while Eduardo Martinez made for a booming, fresh-voiced Montano, and Matteo Mancini was laudable as the Herald. 

Maestro Mehta conducted an expertly paced, richly textured, and abundantly dramatic performance, drawing out the stellar musicianship of the outstanding orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. The extraordinary musical and dramatic universe of this opera performed in concert will linger in memory for a long time. A truly special and rewarding evening at the Enescu Festival.

Info about the 2023 George Enescu Festival

Top photo: Fabio Sartori, Anastasia Bartoli, Zubin Mehta, Luca Salsi, Matteo Mancini – Photo: Andrei Gindac

About Maria-Cristina Necula (182 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.