LA Opera’s Music Director James Conlon conducted a vibrant and emotionally charged performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello based on William Shakespeare’s play Othello at the Music Center. Conlon explained in a pre-performance talk that Verdi had evolved away from the traditional dependence on a “string of arias” to carry the storyline to structuring the opera’s Acts by relying on the musical transitions of shifting moods and intensity expressed by the dramatic essence of the play as interpreted in the Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito.
Conlon’s easy-going manner and sense of humor was a treat to hear as he, uhm, set the stage for the performance by quoting G.B. Shaw’s observation that “Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.”
The late 16th century tragedy follows the tribulations of the noble Moorish general Otello, tenor Russell Thomas, who returning to Cyprus after battle against the Turks, is manipulated by the malevolent Iago, baritone Igor Golovatenko, into believing his wife Desdemona, soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, is unfaithful, which transforms Otellos from a celebrating as a conquering hero and having a passionate love for his wife into a despairing man full of jealousy and seeking brevenge.
Thomas compellingly displays a full range of emotions from a sweet tenderness to gripping inner torment and anguish. Willis-Sørensen rich voice captured the sweetness of a loving wife profound tension as she anticipates her inevitable fate. Golovatenko gave a subtle performance exhibiting a charismatic demeanor as she espoused and acted upon the machinations of his amorality.
The undertones for the performance may well be viewed from a perspective of race and religion. Otello, the Muslim North African, converting to Christianity and marrying the devout and chaste Desdemona who prays to God, Iago who espouses a “Credo” acknowledging his own evil and that God is cruel and virtue a lie, and Verdi himself who has been described as having a “Catholic soul.”
The supporting cast includes tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro as Cassio, who Iago gets to lie regarding Desdemona’s faithfulness to torment Otello and tenor Anthony León as the nobleman Roderigo who desires Desdemona and who also unwittingly finds himself being Iago’s pawn to further humiliate Otello to his breaking point of sanity. Johan Engels’s scenic design created an appropriately gloomy mood from the opening act feel of a ship with a large lantern violently swinging back and forth in the tumultuous storm at sea and the stark concrete-like cube alcove and passage way sets in Acts 2 and 3. Engels also designed the solid-colored costumes that convey the formally somber demeanor of the characters whose moods are accentuated by the light and shadows created by Jason Hand’s lighting design.
Under director Jeremy Frank, The LA Opera Chorus, dressed in white tunics and flower crowns, provided both a pleasant relief from the fervor of the plot as well as vocally boosting the moments of distress that occur. For upcoming LA Opera productions, go to laopera.org
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