A COMPELLING ‘OTELLO’ FROM PACIFIC OPERA VICTORIA
Verdi, OTELLO: Kristian Benedikt (Otello), Todd Thomas (Iago), Leslie Ann Bradley (Desdemona), Adam Luther (Cassio), Lynne McMurtry (Emilia), Jeremy Bowes (Lodovico), Matthew Bruce (Roderigo) and Alexander Dobson (Montano), Victoria Symphony Orchestra, Timothy Vernon (conductor), Pacific Opera Chorus (under Giuseppe Pietraroia); directed by Glynis Leyshon, Royal Theatre Victoria, October 25, 2015.
Otello has been called the Everest beside which all other Italian operas are foothills. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest operas ever written, displaying perfection and beauty, both dramatic and musical. This is due to three people: William Shakespeare, whose Othello is itself a masterpiece of dramatic intensity; Arrigo Boito, who did a consummate job of turning Shakespeare’s play into a libretto; and Giuseppe Verdi, who was at the peak of his powers, having evolved into a late style of composition marked by sophistication, subtlety, and economy. Nothing superfluous, nothing but what is absolutely necessary to the drama, as little noise as possible.
It is a style that disappoints some: where are the big tunes, they ask. But big tunes are the mark of earlier Verdi—of earlier 19th-century Italian opera, in fact—where the demands of the art form were rhetorical as much as dramatic, with stand-up numbers and breathing spaces for applause. But Verdi had always been interested in drama and slowly found ways to shed rhetoric for fidelity to human action. Otello is a potent psychological tragedy, marked by the intense give and take of its two principals, one wresting power from the other: Iago, out to destroy his captain through dark suggestion, and Otello, the unsure husband in an alien culture struggling to stay upright under this assault. This is clearly not aria material, but requires the most flexible of arioso. This Verdi provides through music that is extremely local and natural. Rather than stopping and starting according to the old Rossinian patterns, it expands and contracts with the dynamics and emotions of the action, seamlessly from beginning to end of each act.
The opening to Otello is brilliant: in medias res, the middle of the storm on Cyprus, with the islanders and disembarked Venetians looking out anxiously at Otello’s floundering ship. Boito has stripped the whole of Shakespeare’s Act 1 in Venice for the sake of greater dramatic economy: everything happens on Cyprus, corrosive moral seduction the sole action. The Otello we see in Act 1 (and for the last time) is Otello at his finest—both public and private—the victor over the Turks, the survivor of storms, the queller of riots, the confidently loving husband. The whole of the opening of the opera—the drama and the music—builds excitedly to his entrance and triumphant cry of Exultate, ‘rejoice. What a gift to an opera company, one well accepted by Pacific Opera. The pacing began briskly, building momentum until Kristian Benedikt’s stentorian tones rang authoritatively through the theatre. His is a powerful voice, put to good use throughout the opera. His solo passage, the Act 2 Ora e per sempre addio, and the dreadful parody of the ‘friendship duet’, in which he and Iago end the act pledging vengeance, were particularly strong. He was also convincing in his more lyrical scenes, particularly his closing Act 1 duet with Desdemona, though for some reason, they both took it rather loudly. His acting throughout, while not perhaps refined to the last degree, was compelling and at times moving. He was a fully satisfactory Otello.
Todd Thomas made a malevolent Iago, not over-the-top-twirling-his-moustaches, but a hail-fellow-well-met hypocrite, his sinister purposes well hidden in his bluff ‘honest’ demeanour. He sang the role convincingly, modulating his voice well in his insinuating seductions of all the good around him. He was genuinely frightening in his credo explaining the nature of his evil.
Leslie Anne Bradley made an outstanding Desdemona, with natural acting and a rich voice commanding her entire range. She was everywhere effective—in her exchanges with other characters and in her big solos in Act 4—the Willow Song and the Ave Maria—both of which she sang beautifully. She made a moving heroine, not a pushover, yet vulnerable in the face of her husband’s obsessive obduracy. Lynne McMurtry as Emilia was also excellent, both singing and acting with assurance.
Production values were high, with Peter Hartwell’s excellent set, simple yet flexible, Jamie Nesbitt’s suggestive projections, and Guy Simard’s lighting that well conveyed the moods of the different acts, and the resplendent costumes. Use of the space was generally exceptional, which has to go to the credit of director Glynis Leyshon. Her direction facilitated the story without interfering with it. There was always enough movement on stage, well motivated by dramatic requirement. Otello’s eavesdropping scene in Act 3 was particularly effective, in terms both of Otello’s constant jockeying for a better vantage point, and of Iago’s enjoyment of bullying his former commander around the stage. The concertato which concluded the act was also fluid and persuasive, with Otello toward the end wandering like a lost soul among the throng. The last act was simplicity itself, allowing strong focus on the tragic emotions well played by the principals.
The music, as always with Pacific Opera Victoria, was excellent. My only negative comment would be that, in the first two acts, things at times seemed rather loud, with more shouting going on than I would have expected. Nonetheless, Maestro Vernon led his forces in a compelling exploration of this masterly score, with the aid of the strong chorus of Giuseppe Pietraroia.
Altogether, it was a rare treat to see Otello, and a gratifying one to be presented with a production of such quality.
© Harvey De Roo 2015