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Uri Caine Ensemble: The Othello Syndrome

A 25-foot statue of Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi that stands at West 73rd Street and Broadway becomes the spiritual nexus of this fascinating new Uri Caine project. Taking his cue from Verdi’s Otello, the figure who faces eastward at the base of the sculpture, the fabled Moor of Venice serves as Caine’s thematic starting point. Stylistically, Caine has been far more audacious, deciding that if Verdi can stand amid all the musical crosscurrents of Manhattan, then his Otello can be similarly hybridized in its re-conception.

The result was presumably more coherent for the audience that saw the world premiere of Caine’s work in 2003 at the Biennale Festival in Venice, where Caine was the musical director. Italians who are suckled on the music of Verdi would no doubt catch the musical allusions to the operatic masterwork more readily, but non-Italians are less likely to comprehend the prime cuts from Arrigo Boito’s original libretto (spoken by Italian actor Marco Paolini) than the English by the poets and vocalists on Caine’s creative team, including Bunny Sigler, Sadiq Bey and Julie Patton.

Giving a primacy to rhythm and dramatic expression, Bey is the most startlingly original of the Othellos, his “Othello’s Confession” a warmly grooved lesson on what hip-hop can be. Bey doubles as the Moor’s nemesis in “Iago’s Credo,” but the villain’s manipulative cunning is shortchanged here. For pure dramatic bravura, Sigler’s singing sets the standard on “The Death of Othello,” sweet, tender, and agonized after he realizes the enormity of his gullibility and its fatal consequence. Sigler also proves to be an irresistible exponent of the Philly Sound with his wailing vocal on “She’s the Only One I Love.”

The brilliance of the instrumentalists more than counterbalances Caine’s conceptual lapses. Aside from Caine on keyboards, the frontliners are Joyce Hammann on violin, Achille Succi on clarinet, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, and Nguyên Lê on guitar. Recorded over a three-year period at studios in five different countries, The Othello Syndrome is obviously a meticulously crafted piece. While its daring and eclecticism will no doubt spark lively controversy, its heart points up the beauty of Verdi’s score.

Originally Published