OPERA - VERDI - OTELLO
“Victory! Victory! Victory! Victory!” cry the Cypriots at the start of Verdi’s Otello, a shout echoed by the audience at Opera Australia’s new production. Where to begin the praise?
Harry Kupfer is the Domingo of opera directors. His forte as a choreographer burst forth in the opening split of a second when the storm is enacted by scattering the chorus down the broad stairs that remain the set throughout the four acts. Instead of having the chorus stand around like a bevy of underemployed weather reporters, Kupfer made them into elemental forces, just as Verdi had in his treatment of the multitudes as the ground for high drama.
Now the limelight must shift to the chorus and their master, Michael Black, who has brought them to a level that could not be bettered. The delineation of the vocal sections in the party scene exemplified their control, precision and potency. They sounded like an Italian company partly because Kupfer hd made them integral to the plot.
The devilish Iago has most of the best tunes which the commanding presence of Jonathan Summers delivered with the requisite hail-fellow-well-met manliness, aided by a rougher edge to his recitative. In the drinking song, his bonding with Cassio to initiate revenge bore the menace of battlefield comradeship. Summers revealed the layers of Iago’s personality though shifts in timbre that appear as diabolic possession so that his performance embodied the vile, the false and the vocally beautiful.
Otello has to enter twice in the first act to calm storms, one natural the other human. On neither occasion was Frank Porretta quite up to the mark in terms of projection, nor again for the start of the “Sangue” duet. Once under way, he reached and held the necessary peaks. Indeed, his voice was lifted by love. His duet with Desdemona attained the sweetness that surprises the soldier in him. Later, the distortion of his love into jealousy brought forth a rage than unmans him so that he loses control of his body as well as his mind. Porretta established the wounded Otello in the long Act III aria as a preparation for his plea to the doomed Desdemona to pray surely moved the angels. Distraught as the audience is made by the destruction of Desdemona, Otello has to win sympathy with his final “To die upon a kiss”. All that and more, Porretta achieved.
Desdemona may be virtuous but she is no mere maiden. Elena Prokina supplied a spirited defence in Act III. Throughout, her rich lower notes played against light and girlish touches to establish the woman who could excite the emotions that brought her murder.
With three towering principals sustained by an confident orchestra and chorus, the supporting parts risk being overwhelmed. Jacqueline Dark ensured that Emelia’s defiance of male bastardry stood out. Richard Anderson rang clear and firm as the Herald. As Cassio, Angus Wood settled into a higher register after a decade of delighting audiences with his baritone.
Simone Young led the orchestra in the last of the productions that she commissioned as artistic director. Whether from the stage or out of the pit, she could have wished for no finer statement of what she had to offer. She guided the pace and power from her players, both as ensemble and soloists, to establish the variety of emotions ennobling a score which is as charged as the Shakepeare original, thanks for the libretto of the young Arrigo Bioto. Young exposed the instrumental detailing in this late Verdi, with its Tristan-like passages and its culmination of Italian string and brass writing.
Kupfer and his designer, Hans Schavernoch made the most of the Opera Theatre’s cramped stage. The set was built on a cross of red and regal carpet at the center of which a giant statue of Atlas supported a mariner’s globe. This monument became the almost too obvious touchstone in the struggle for mastery between Otello and Iago.that shook the world.
Yan Tax militarized the costumes of the men into the 1930s without making them fascists. The frocks of the chorus were suave and mostly muted against which shone Desdemona’s emerald. This satisfying contrast was supported by the lighting from Toby Sewell, the one local on the team.
The whirlwind that burst forth in the first scene gave way to the zephyrs of affection and chill winds of envy as the moods of the story demanded. Kupfer and company kept a thrilling yet steady course.