SAN DIEGO — All robust Italian--or Italianate--tenors want to sing Verdi's Otello. Few dare. Fewer can.
Caruso didn't even try. Nor, in more recent times, did Bjoerling, Corelli or Tucker. Svanholm, Di Stefano and James King did make valiant stabs at the challenge, but they shouldn't have.
The role is a tenor-killer. It demands a voice of uncommon stamina, range and power. It demands a Latin Heldentenor . And that is just the beginning.
A bona fide Otello must be able to sustain a relatively low tessitura in long stretches of brooding, yet convey outbursts of exultation and rage with staggering thrust. A sensuous legato comes in handy for the love music, as does a floating pianissimo in the death scene.
As if all that weren't enough to daunt most operatic mortals, there is the additional matter of the drama. Otello is no ordinary stand-and-sing protagonist. He is a tragic, sometimes introspective, fundamentally tempestuous Shakespearean hero.
A new contender for the mantle of the Lion of Venice is news even under placid circumstances. Saturday night at the Civic Theatre the circumstances were exceptionally difficult. Giuseppe Giacomini was not just singing the first Otello of his career; he was singing the role despite obvious remnants of a throat ailment.
He is a brave man. He also gives every indication that he deserves serious attention in this nearly impossible assignment.
True, he came perilously close to cracking, if not croaking, in a few exposed passages. True, his temperament cannot be described as intrinsically flamboyant. In context, however, such considerations hardly mattered.
Giacomini made it clear at the outset--in the rigors of the "Esultate"--that he has the right resources. The sound at his command is remarkably big, bright and plangent. The prescribed range of the role poses no problem for him. He paces himself intelligently, phrases poignantly, articulates cleanly.
Even at this early stage, he gives a performance remarkable for its sensitivity, dignity and clarion force.
Unlike some illustrious predecessors, he does not shout, does not snarl, does not grunt, does not resort to parlando fakery. He savors Verdi's lyricism, yet rides the mighty climaxes with brilliance. It is reassuring.
The "Otello" arranged by the San Diego Opera around this Otello turned out, for the most part, to be solid rather than inspiring.
The conductor, Michelangelo Veltri, proved himself little more than a comforting routinier. Although he scored all the basic, superficial points, he contributed some rather distracting singing of his own, permitted a tasteless pause for applause after Desdemona's "Ave Maria," and succeeded in taming the wayward San Diego strings only some of the time.
Lotfi Mansouri staged the proceedings with an appreciative eye on character relationships and old-fashioned convention. Wolfram Skalicki's sets, designed for Toronto, looked primitive. Nobody knows who designed the all-purpose, uncredited costumes.
As far as the audience was concerned, the stage was dominated by Silvano Carroli's swaggering, healthy, hammy Iago. He really was good, in his unabashedly blustery way, so long as one could forget the dangerous subtlety of Bacquier, the insinuating mezza-voce of Warren or the slimy elegance of Gobbi.
Ilona Tokody must be one of the most radiant, most girlish, most tasteful Desdemonas in history. Vocally, she compelled constant interest and admiration, even when her tone turned wiry and her timbre seemed dangerously slender.
The strong supporting cast included Jon Garrison as an ardent Cassio, Richard Vernon as a sonorous Lodovico, Suzanna Guzman as a sympathetic Emilia, James Patterson as an aggressive Montano, and David Rudat as an aristocratic Roderigo.