Verdi’s opera Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, begins impressively with an explosive crashing and the orchestra in full flight to create the sense of a storm and battle. It is an excellent beginning to this State Opera SA co-production, especially as director Simon Phillips has chosen to set this 1887 tale on an aircraft carrier.
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra was at its best on opening night, brilliantly conducted by Brad Cohen, who has an impressive list of productions and companies to his credit.
There is no preliminary or gradual overture to settle the audience, which is thrust immediately into the midst of a stormy battle and very modern military scene, as realised by designer Dale Ferguson. The aircraft carrier is functional, flexible and sturdy, with its various levels and settings providing opportunities for secretive liaisons and trysts.
The State Opera chorus is in good voice, as usual, and its rousing singing contributes to the stimulating opening; the members seem to enjoy being costumed in modern military uniforms and given the freedom to take “selfies” on their mobile phones. All is set for the triumphant and safe return of Otello, the Lion of Venice, who has secured a great victory for his army; the entire troupe succeeds in engaging and intriguing the audience.
Douglas McNicol, as Iago – who professes his loyalty to Otello to his face, but expresses his bitter resentment to others behind his back – not only sings superbly, he also captures the cunning, villainous nature of the man. He is an ominous presence throughout the production, without resorting to melodrama.
Miriam Gordon-Stewart plays Desdemona and her voice is a true gift; throughout the show, she plays Desdemona as the loyal, confused wife of Otello and takes the audience to a moment of true serenity when she performs the Willow song as she resigns herself to her fate.
Bradley Daley, as Otello, is another truly world-class singer; when he sings, he commands the stage. The minor principals are also superb. Catriona Barr is Emilia, Desdemona’s maid (or person assigned to assist her), bringing a powerful voice when she speaks out against Iago’s treachery. Bernard Hull, as Cassio, establishes a comfortable presence and easy rapport with his peers on board the ship. These are all home-grown Australian singers who are performing at an international level at home and abroad and we are fortunate to have them singing with State Opera.
There is an artistic decision in this production to not have Otello as a Moor, or a dark-skinned man. People may debate whether it is necessary or not, but Shakespeare’s play (and Verdi’s opera) has an extra layer of meaning and level of menace when there is a distrust and desire to bring down a person who has given great service to a country, but is of a different race to the majority of those who serve them. There are even nastier overtones when a man such as Iago chooses to betray a man who has proved to be valiant because of the colour of his skin. It does not diminish the tragedy of Desdemona’s death, but nor does it heighten it.
The aircraft carrier setting is a successful one and the stage is mostly used to good effect, with armed sailors in tableau; the consoles, video screens, headsets and security cameras allow for the jealous Otello to spy on Desdemona, and for Iago to set the trap for Otello’s rage and downfall. Given a modern, naturalistic setting, it is reasonable to expect that stage fighting will be convincing and that Otello needs to draw more than a sword to intimidate 40 or 50 fellow sailors.
This production is the result of a collaboration with other opera companies and has been staged elsewhere, so there has been time to iron out minor setting issues that can jar a modern audience, and the singers, set construction crew, musicians and wardrobe are all of a high calibre. For Otello to work, however, it is crucial that there be an electric passion between Otello and Desdemona, because, as he sings, his greatest joy is in her arms. The power of the final act is in the almost incomprehensible idea that Otello (or anyone) could destroy the person he loves most; State Opera’s Otello has the makings of a great modern interpretation but we need to see and feel more of the drive and desire between the two leads in order to be truly convinced of the tragedy.
State Opera of SA is presenting Otello at the Festival Theatre again on October 28 and 30 and November 1.
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