By Kelly Dean Hansen, freelance classical music writer

Shakespeare’s four mature tragedies–King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello–are his greatest and most disturbing achievements.  Each of them effectively exposes the human frailties that lead to the catastrophe.  In Othello, that frailty is of course jealousy, but the underlying racial tension is every bit as salient.  In operatic adaptations of the play, issues of race have always spilled from the story itself into real-world production and casting.

In Central City Opera’s third and final mainstage presentation of its Shakespeare-centered 2023 season, the company chose not Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 masterpiece Otello, but Gioachino Rossini’s much lesser-known version from 70 years earlier, first staged in 1816.  The Verdi work hews much closer to Shakespeare, but Rossini’s opera, set to a libretto based on a French adaptation from 1796, deviates greatly from the play in many respects, including a larger emphasis on the role of race in the drama.

It is not just the overshadowing by Verdi, or the fact that the frequently undervalued Rossini is praised more for his comedies than his serious operas, that create difficulties in staging his Otello.  The composer, who wrote his vocal parts in the florid bel canto style that dominated Italian opera in the early 19th Century, requires three first-rate tenors in major roles, a challenge for any company that is met triumphantly in CCO music director John Baril’s casting.

The production, which runs for only six total performances through August 6, also directly and openly tackles the racial component.  Until very recently, it was common to cast non-black tenors in the title role for both Rossini and Verdi, usually in dark makeup with the argument that it was a matter of costuming and not “blackface.”

In 2023, this is no longer tenable.  For the story to make its strongest impact, the title role must be performed by a black singer, and that singer must be stupendous.  Tenor Kenneth Tarver is more than stupendous.  His execution of Rossini’s vocal pyrotechnics is spine-tingling, but his portrayal of the character’s inner turmoil is genuinely moving.

No less brilliant are the other two tenors.  The role of the villainous Iago is smaller than in Shakespeare and certainly than in Verdi, but Bernard Holcomb is delightfully wicked, magnifying his time on the stage.  Holcomb is also black, and while the character’s race is not specified, CCO’s staging makes Iago another victim of racism, which adds a layer of profundity to his villainy and his hatred of Othello (as an example, other characters wipe clean their arms after shaking hands with both Othello and Iago).

The third tenor role represents Rossini’s biggest deviation from the play.  The character of Rodrigo is expanded to represent Othello’s rival, replacing Shakespeare’s Cassio, and unlike the bard, Rossini’s libretto makes that rival real.  Rodrigo has an actual desire to win Desdemona’s hand, along with the support of her father.  This intensifies the drama in many ways and makes Othello’s jealousy more reasonable than the wayward handkerchief in Shakespeare and Verdi.

Rossini gave some of his most difficult music to Rodrigo, including an extended and utterly thrilling aria in Act II.  Christopher Bozeka is an amazingly agile singer, repeatedly nailing the many stratospheric notes required by Rossini and the almost endless rapid vocal runs.  The three tenors all have duets with each other, providing the audience an abundance of the rarely heard and striking sound of two high male voices in virtuosic harmony and counterpoint.

At first glance, it appears that Rossini might have shortchanged the lead female role of Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent official whom Othello has married in secret.  She has no entrance aria, which was scandalous at the time.  The composer, who is not given enough credit for his dramatic sensibility, saved her biggest moments for his masterful and tightly structured third act. 

Soprano Cecilia Violetta López lends pathos and sympathy to the role.  Her nuanced and vibrant singing comes to the fore in those big Act III moments (the Willow Song and the Prayer), but is also evident in her duets with Tarver, Bozeka, and mezzo-soprano Hillary Ginther, who plays her confidant Emilia.  The Act II trio of Tarver, Bozeka, and López gloriously represents Rossini’s ensemble writing at its most exciting.

Othello and Desdemona are not given an extended scene together until the end, a dramatic stroke that works wonders for the shocking effect when Othello unjustly murders his innocent wife.  Tarver and López work hard for that moment, and it pays off.

Ginther is extremely warm and openhearted as Emilia.  Federico De Michelis is appropriately stentorian and resonant in the opera’s only baritone role of Elmiro, Desdemona’s harsh and powerful father.  He is the only one of the six leads who has performed at Central City before.  Rossini gave three supporting roles to yet more tenor voices, all played by apprentice artists of the company’s Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program: Daniel Miller, Dylan Schang, and Angelo Silva.  Schang, who sings the glorious gondolier’s song in Act III, also has roles in the season’s other two productions, making him one of its unsung heroes.

Stage director Ashraf Sewailam is beloved in Colorado, with local ties that run deep over many years, but this is the first time an audience here has experienced his work behind the scenes rather than his legendary performances in iconic bass roles.  Sewailam’s choice to move the story from 16th-Century Venice to Ancient Rome is inspired.  The sets are beautiful, and the setting allows for even more nuances in the story’s social commentary, an element Sewailam embraces.

Rossini’s demands on the orchestra are every bit as stringent as on his singers.  The score is long and often thankless for the musicians, but Baril, who conducts, brings out their best, including prominent solos for principal horn Carolyn Kunicki and harpist Janet Harriman.  The chorus is also given an appropriately large role, especially in the opening number.  Chorus master Brandon Eldredge, whose ensemble in the season’s Roméo et Juliette made a big impact, accomplishes the same here, with gorgeous harmonies and excellent Italian diction.  This ambitious Otello is both a strong argument for the composer and an exemplar for the presentation of his works.