John Mac Master and Joni Henson in Calgary Opera’s Otello. Photo by Trudie Lee.
November 17, 21 and 23
I had a very interesting discussion with a friend of mine at the intermission of Calgary Opera’s presentation of Verdi’s Otello. We met up as planned to discuss what we had seen thus far and compare notes. But just as I was starting to lay out my thoughts on the production, my friend chimed in with, “I never actually WATCH an opera; I mostly just close my eyes and listen.” In spite of my issue with this manner of experience, I had to laugh. You see, if I were to employ his method, I would have thought Otello was a wondrously splendid production full of rich resonant voices and sweepingly dramatic music. But I am a theatre person at heart and as much as I find joy in the music/voices in opera, what happens on stage dramatically is crucial for my enjoyment. And in this regard, Otello fell short.
To get the facts and context out of the way first, Otello was Verdi’s penultimate opera and he had to be coaxed from retirement to compose it. It seems that after his masterpiece Aida, Verdi was content to rest on his laurels or perhaps just unsure he had another great work in him. But compose it he did after some encouragement from his colleagues and Otello premiered at La Scala (the world-renowned opera house in Milan) in 1887 to great acclaim. The story goes that when the opening-night curtain came down, Verdi was greeted with roaring cheers and audience members paraded him around the streets of Milan via carriage. Having never seen the production, and with the knowledge of its great reputation, I was extremely excited when, as part of its 2012-13 ode to Verdi, Calgary Opera chose Otello as the season opener.
The opera begins with the second act of Shakespeare’s narrative where we find Otello and Desdemona already in living in Cyprus. The Moor, with his dual titles of Governor of Cyprus and Venetian General, has just returned from a war against the Turks. A storm threatens to put his ship in peril, but the weather abates and Otello comes ashore triumphant. Almost immediately, Iago, still to this day one of literature’s most supreme villains, begins to plant the seeds of romantic suspicion and jealousy in Otello in an effort to advance his own nefarious ambitions. It’s a powerful story with raw emotion that the audience is well aware ends in abject tragedy. Therefore, the challenge of the opera is to keep us enthralled as we witness such a well-worn tale.
Verdi’s score and Arrigo Boito’s libretto both do a wonderful job of this. Running the gamut between the moody and intellectual discussion of evil sung by Iago, to Otello and Desdemona’s tender love duet to the pledge of vengeance sung by Otello and Iago, the music takes the audience on the roller coaster ride of cresting emotion and out of control rage, jealousy and heartbreak.
Equally affecting are the beautiful voices that give life to the music with not a weak vocal performance in the cast. Of particular note is soprano Joni Henson making her debut with Calgary Opera as Desdemona. Henson’s clear, rich, resonant tones bring beautiful depth and meaning to her character’s confusion and heartbreak and she shines brightly throughout the performance. John Mac Master as Otello also delivers commanding vocal talent, although with very little bravo moments to perform, Mac Master had to settle with being good as opposed to having the opportunity to be great. The real star of the vocal field was Gregory Dahl as Iago. With a Baritone deep and enunciated, Dahl tore perfectly through his moments and offered up a stunning performance that left no doubt as to his evil ways and operatic prowess.
So yes, if I closed my eyes, all was peachy. But as I’ve already stated, look I did and what I saw was terribly disappointing. My most minor quibble was with Scott Reid’s unimaginative and unattractive set design in the first half of the opera which saw the stage wrapped by a dismal painting of a castle with a stone-like replica of stairs and columns in front. Not only did it feel cheap and flimsy but the lack of niche space caused the chorus to bunch up in clusters around the stage affecting a constipated feel to the action. Thankfully Reid greatly improved the visual interest in the second half with his well-realized armory and bedroom designs.
Whatever set issues I had, they could have been easily forgotten if Kelly Robinson’s stage direction provided anything compelling to watch. I have said this so often that I feel like tattooing it on my forehead to save me from one more utterance – opera productions that allow their performers to stand in one place and sing without any physical acting or emotive movement is unacceptable by today’s standards. To be fair, Robinson isn’t guilty of the extreme of this criticism, but more often than not during Otello, performers stood their ground and missed opportunity after opportunity to express their emotions visually. So much so that I found myself completely dismissing the passions they felt out of boredom. When Mac Master sings of his rage and jealousy and thirst for vengeance yet barely moves from the chair he is sitting on or his mark on the stage save for a couple of arm waves, I could barely bother to care. When Henson sings her Willow Song and Ave Maria in her chamber out sorrow and confusion at Otello’s sudden anger with her yet remains fairly stagnant and stiff throughout, I could conjure no sympathy for the poor dear.
The one character who seemed capable of breaking through this painfully dreary staging was Dahl’s Iago. By far the best actor of the bunch, Dahl managed to emote not just with his magnificent voice, but with his whole body, making him easily stand out in every scene. Yet even with Dahl’s efforts, I thought his physical abilities were grotesquely underused. Iago is an unctuous, manipulative, malevolent character that should be allowed to almost writhe around the stage with evil intent. I believe that Dahl had the capability (and perhaps the desire) to take his character to this level, but in a production that demands so little from its performers acting and dulls the staging to a slow drone, dramatic ability was obviously not the priority.
Verdi might have been carried through the streets in triumph after his premiere production of Otello, after the production I saw, I just went home frustrated.
For the occasional opera goer and the opera newbie– Otello is a familiar and simple to follow story making it easy to engage with. While the voices are beautiful, there are no moments in the music that you will recognize or leave humming. A fine but not great night at the opera. MAYBE SEE IT
For the opera junkie – If you are like my friend and are content to close your eyes and listen, you will be more than pleased. But take one peek and the magic burns out quickly. MAYBE SEE IT