Thrilling opera still has many insights in to human behaviour.
Staged in Perth for the first time as part of the Perth International Arts Festival, this dramatic re-telling of Shakespeare’s Otello is Verdi’s final tragic opera that took a number of years to come to fruition. It was wrapped in secrecy right up until the first performance in Italy in 1887 with Verdi reserving the right to cancel the premiere and was the 25th of Verdi’s 26 operas.
The story could do with a feminist critique; what with our heroine Desdemona loving Otello the General because of his heroic feats at battle, and later being accused of infidelity based on the missing handkerchief (and Iago’s evil machinations), ending with her being smothered to death all the while proclaiming she is chaste and not the whore she is accused of being by her husband. This Shakespearean play was apparently chosen by Verdi for its relatively straightforward plot but the setting harks back to the 1400s, so the struggle is indeed to make it relevant for a contemporary audience.
Intelligently directed by Simon Phillips and passionately conducted by the WA Opera’s Artistic Director, Joseph Colaneri, Otello is made current through its staging on a contemporary aircraft carrier deck. This setting includes television screens and a split stage that provides at least three different suspended or onstage spaces for singers to work in - along with contemporary military costume design. Designer Dale Ferguson has done a sterling job in this lush production (with a small gripe being the upper circle cannot always see the main singer’s upper body with one of the bars of the deck obscuring vision).
Italian tenor, Antonello Palombi, is the dramatic standout in the title role of Otello with a commanding presence in this demanding role from the beginning famous entrance in Act 1 of ‘Esultate’. His singing has a full bodied warmth and intensity that shows his extensive experience performing this role. In a presage of things to come at the conclusion of Act 1, Otello invites death, saying he will never be this happy again.
There is also brilliant singing from Perth Baritone, James Clayton, as Iago, the General’s ensign (‘the demon drives you and that demon is me’) with a convincing evil performance in Act 2’s ‘I Believe in a Cruel God’, and his calls for Satan’s support with acutely relevant acting bringing home the manipulative psyche of this villainous character.
Well-known Australian Mezzo Soprano Fiona Campbell as Emilia (Iago’s wife) has a warmth and integrity in her acting that is really highlighted in the concluding Act. The three leading roles of Otello, Iago and Desdemona are among Verdi’s most demanding, so history throws down a challenge to incumbent singers. Palombi’s experience in the role is obvious, whereas some of the other singers are newer to this opera and seem to be less convincing.
Internationally based Australian Soprano Cheryl Barker as Desdemona is not my favourite singer of the night, despite some spirited contributions to the quartet in Act 2, her Act 3 solo, ‘God Keep You Merry, Husband’, when she is first accused of being faithless, and later, when on the ground, shamed in front of all eyes, when her singing reaches more intensity with, ‘Fallen! Yes in the Foul Mud’. All singers thrillingly contribute in the Act 2 quartet, encouraging the audience to focus purely on the fantastically intertwined music from both voice and orchestra.
The WA Opera Chorus is ably supplemented by the Cape Town Opera Chorus for a groundswell of 44 voices and is a magnificent support to the main roles. The ‘Wet your Throat’ chorus in the first Act with Iago, Cassio and Roderigo revels in its bacchanalian delight. The high drama of Act 3 is also augmented by the fantastic chorus work.
The WA Symphony Orchestra is an integral part to ensuring the success of this performance as Verdi’s orchestration conveys much of the emotional depth giving psychological intensity to the singers’ words.
In addition to the brilliant music, Palombi’s standout singing and the clever direction, other scenes are worthy of merit. These include Otello’s chaos of mind and Iago sitting in judgment ‘listening in’ on headphones to Otello and Desdemona.
To encounter the famous Shakespearian line of, ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ and to think about how Iago’s character manipulates everyone in this opera to his will – so much so that the audience members equally boo and clap Clayton’s masterful performance at tje opera’s end – demonstrates that thrilling opera still has many insights into human behaviour to give its audience.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Performed by the West Australian Opera Company, the Cape Town Opera Chorus and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Written by Giuseppe Verdi based on Shakespeare’s Othello with Libretto by Arrigo Boito.
Conductor Joseph Colaneri
Director Simon Phillips
Designer Dale Ferguson
Costume Designer Michael Mitchell
Cast: Otello – Antonello Palombi, Tenor, Desdemona – Cheryl Barker, Soprano, Iago – James Clayton, Baritone, Emilia – Fiona Campbell, Mezzo Soprano, Cassio – Henry Choo, Roderigo – Matthew Lester, Lodovico – Andrew Collis, Montano – Andrew Foote, Herald –David Dockery
His Majesty’s Theatre, Hay St
Perth International Arts Festival
4 -11 February