Stage Door Review

Otello

Monday, May 6, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Giuseppe Verdi, directed by David Alden

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

April 27, 30, May 3, 9, 12, 15, 18 & 21, 2019

Iago: “L’alvo frenetico del mar sia la sua tomba!”

The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Verdi’s Otello is the most effective the company has yet presented. Originally created in 2014 by English National Opera as a co-production with Royal Swedish Opera and Teatro Real Madrid, the production directed by David Alden’s has its quirks but they do not distract from the passionate singing of the principals or the magnificent playing of the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus.

Verdi had already announced his retirement after Aida in 1871, yet the libretto of Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) so attracted Verdi’s attention that he began to set it. The opera was not completed until 1885 and did not premiere until 1887. It is generally considered not merely one of Verdi’s greatest operas but one of the greatest ever written. It is remarkable showing that Verdi at age 72 was interested in expanding the role of the orchestra in shaping the mood of the opera and in adapting Wagner’s use of Leitmotifs for his own purposes. Some people claim that Boito’s libretto is superior to Shakespeare’s play that it is based on. One reason is that Boito omits Shakespeare’s first act set in Venice thus allowing the entire opera take place in Cyprus and to adhere to the three unities of time, place and action. Boito also cuts out most of the secondary characters so that the opera more intensely focusses on the trio of Otello, Desdemona and Iago which only increases the dramatic tension. 

Alden and designer Jon Morrell have moved the action forward from the Renaissance to around 1887 when, contrary to Shakespeare, Cyprus was a Turkish, not a Venetian, possession. Despite this, Alden has Verdi’s Cypriot chorus still celebrate the Venetians’ victory over the Turks and tear up the Turkish flag. For unknown reasons during the celebratory chorus “Fuoco di gioia!”, Alden has a gypsy woman who has seemingly wandered in from Carmen, perform a lascivious dance which no one seems to notice. Indeed, the movement directed by Maxine Braham is peculiar all through the opera. One moment the chorus performs a kalamatianos, the next dancers engage in modern dance without folk origins. 

Alden draws on his brother Christopher’s obsession with using paintings in his productions by having an icon of the Virgin Mary placed beside Desdemona in Act 2 which Otello later carries about with him in Act 3 as if it were a symbol of purity. Iago and, less believably, Cassio later use the same icon as a dartboard. Alden’s oddest choice, however, is to stage Othello’s murder of Desdemona in their bedroom in Act 4 without a bed. Alden forces Desdemona, wife of the commanding officer of Cyprus, to sleep on the stone floor within the peeling semicircular walls of Morrell’s single set. Contrary to Boito’s stage directions, Alden does not have Iago flee and neither do any spectators attempt to prevent Otello from suicide when they see he is still armed. Instead, they file out leaving Iago to gloat over Otello’s remorse and suicide. 

Luckily, the production boasts an exemplary cast. Russell Thomas has the distinction of being the first person of colour ever to sing Otello at the COC. He has performed here before in Norma and Carmen in 2016 and in Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2012, but never has his tenor sounded so heroic and Italianate nor has his acting shown such intensity as it does in this role. Thomas succeeds in carefully delineating Otello’s decline from an overly proud conqueror at the start of the action to a broken man who demeans himself by obsessively demanding “Il fazzoletto” (“the handkerchief”) to each of Desdemona’s remarks in Act 3. In Act 4 Thomas’s voice takes on a greater range expressivity and tone that brings out Otello’s sensitivity even as he prepares himself for murder. 

Tamara Wilson has huge soprano which she wields with complete control. She gives an exquisite account of the Willow Song followed by an emotional “Ave Maria” in which her voice delicately depicts Desdemona’s inner struggle between fear and consolation. More impressive than her fortes that sailed easily over the large orchestra are her heavenly sotto voce utterances that filled the entire auditorium. Thomas’s and Wilson’s voices blend perfectly for their famous Act 1 duet “Già nella notte densa” whose melody becomes the Leitmotif recalling their love later in the action.

Gerald Finlay is a marvel as Iago and boasts a rich, velvety baritone over whose multiple hues he exercizes complete control bringing out subtle nuances in every line. Boito follows Coleridge’s once-popular characterization of Iago’s actions as “motiveless malignity”. Since, according to this notion, Shakespeare provides no solid motivation for Iago’s evil acts, Boito has Iago spell out his beliefs in his great “Credo”, including “Credo in un Dio crudel / che m’ha creato simile a sè” (“I believe in a cruel God / who created me in his image”). Finlay makes this bold statement truly electrifying and his Iago remains positively incandescent with malevolence from then on. As the subtlest actor in the cast, Finlay dominated the stage with his every appearance. 

Andrew Haji’s strong high tenor is ideal for the misused Cassio. As Emilia, Carolyn Sproule is costumed as a bookish, tweed-suited bluestocking which lends her an inappropriately comic look. She sings, however, in a rich, lustrous mezzo-soprano whose gravitas completely contrasts with her appearance. The Roderigo of Owen McCausland is well imagined as an aging dandy, and Önay Köse’s enormous, resonant bass made him a commanding Lodovico.

Under Johannes Debus the COC Orchestra fully conveys the menacingly dark tinto with which Verdi imbued his score from the rage and tumult of the initial storm to the ecstasy of the love theme to the fearful solemnity of Desdemona’s final scene. Debus draws a plush sound punctuated with brilliant flashes from the brass that portray the entire action as bouts of a single disturbance in the universe – the storm at sea followed by another, more extended tempest of clashing human emotions. It was only fitting that the cascades of applause for the orchestra were as strong as those for the principals.  

© Christopher Hoile

Note: This is version of a the review that will appear later this year in Opera News.

Photos: (from top) Rusell Thomas (centre) as Otello; Gerald Finlay as Iago and Russell Thomas as Otello; Tamara Wilson as Desdemona and Russell Thomas as Otello. © 2019 Michael Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.coc.ca.