History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. Giuseppe Verdi’s public waited almost 10 years from the time they heard whispers of a new opera being written to the triumphant opening night performance of Otello on February 5, 1887. Sydney audiences didn’t have to wait quite so long, but they were just as appreciative when Opera Australia’s postponed production of Otello finally graced the stage on February 19 this year.
This is a remounting of the 2003 interpretation by German director, Harry Kupfer, with current director, Luke Joslin remaining faithful to Kupfer’s original vision.
The story is of course based on Shakespeare’s circa 1603 play, Othello, in which the eponymous Venetian general marries the much younger, aristocratic Desdemona. Both Othello’s military prowess and his having won the heart of the much adored Desdemona cause resentment and jealousy among several men in his inner circle, most notably his pathologically vindictive ensign, Iago. Iago plants suspicion and contrives circumstances that will occasion vengeful murder, all to sooth his bruised ego. Iago is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most diabolical villains, and, as such, one of the most deliciously meaty roles to play in any adaptation.
Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretto for Verdi’s opera, stays fairly close to the source material, making only practical changes for the sake of simplicity. The score itself doesn’t have any hummable melodies but does have the intuitive emotional richness that Verdi, even at 84 years old, give in volumes.
There are lots of musical opportunities for the principals to showcase their talents – and that they definitely do. Korean born tenor, Yonghoon Lee plays Otello. Those familiar with Shakespeare’s work will immediately be struck by this. One very important detail omitted in the plot summary above is that Othello is a Moor, a generic term used at the time to describe someone from particular geographic regions who is dark-skinned and of the Islamic faith.
It’s a characteristic that is fundamental to the themes in Shakespeare’s work, but it is deleted from this production, even by reference.
With Desdemona being played by Korean soprano, Karah Son, many of the central issues in the original story disappear: miscegenation, racism, class, religious conflict. And so we are left with a far simpler tale driven by visceral emotions: love jealousy, deception, gullibility, vengeance, pride.
Both Lee and Son are extraordinary, creating pin-drop silence with duets fuelled by love, then murderous rage. Lee’s voice is searing and clear; Son’s is infused with honesty and pathos.
Iago is played with malevolent presence by baritone, Marco Vratogna, who is also one of the stronger actors in the cast. Virgilio Marino is Cassio, a hapless pawn in Iago’s scheme. Marino has a likeable voice but is a little melodramatic as an actor, especially when playing drunk.
Sian Sharp plays Iago’s unfortunate wife and she has some poignant moments on stage. Roderigo, another collateral casualty is played by Richard Anderson.
Andrea Battistoni enthusiastically conducts an orchestra that has been champing at the bit to play this score.
The extraordinary set design by Hans Schavernoch features a full-stage, steeply rising stair case that creates a kind of vertical canvas, with a self-patterend red carpet that tumbles down in two diagonal lengths forming a cross. At the centre is a very tall bronze statue of Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. Slatted doors across the top of the stage provide an impressive entry point for cast, as well as effective lighting opportunities.
Overall, a very satisfying, enjoyable operatic experience.