Sydney Opera House:”Otello”

Sydney. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Opera Australia 2014 Season.
Opera in 4 Acts.  Libretto by Arrigo Boito, after Shakespeare’s Othello
Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Otello, a Moor, General in the Venetian army SIMON O’NEILL
Montano,Otello’s predecessor in Cyprus RICHARD ANDERSON
Cassio, Otello’s lieutenant JAMES EGGLESTONE
Iago, Otello’s ensign CLAUDIO SGURA
Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman DAVID CORCORAN
Desdemona, Otello’s wife LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN
Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid JACQUELINE DARK
Lodovico, Ambassador of the Venetian Republic PELHAM ANDREWS
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Opera Australia Chorus
Conductor   Christian Badea
Chorus master Anthony Hunt 
Director   Harry Kupfer
Revival director Roger Press
Set designer   Hans Schavernoch
Costume designer Yan Tax
Lighting designer   Toby Sewell  
This production was first performed on 2nd August 2003
in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House.
Sydney. 9th July, 2014.

Opera Australia‘s production of Otello, has certainly stood the test of time, as demonstrated by its latest revival this season, eleven years after its opening. When the curtain rises, the scene, which remains unchanged for the entire opera, is certainly impressive. The set, by the designer Hans Schavenoch, gives a sense of grandeur (something very difficult to achieve on this small stage), and is a wall to wall black staircase which descends from a platform divided from an outdoor terrace by a row of shuttered doors. The main action and the arrivals and departures take place on a brocaded red carpet runner, which forms a slightly diagonal cross on the stairway. A lone Atlas figure statue on a plinth, bearing the universe on his shoulders is the suggestive centrepiece of the stairs. Dramatic use for eavesdropping is made of the secondary stairways which cut into the main one. The set design exploits one of the few merits of the opera theatre; its tiered rows of seats in the auditorium. The action moves within the vertical space rather than the horizontal (the terrace level being almost on a par with the circle), giving it a greater field of movement and direction, while drawing the audience closer at the same time; a situation used to great advantage in Iago’s Credo and Otello’s monologues. The almost symphonic construction of the score, the immediacy of the dramatic action and the fleeting insinuations, intrinsic and vital to the unfolding of the opera, are greatly facilitated and enhanced by the simplicity, proximity, yet monumentality of the set. Only the last act suffers from the fact that the scene takes place in a grand public space instead of the privacy of a bedchamber.
The choice to enact the story somewhere around the beginning of World War 2, is licit but does give it extraneous political overtones while not particularly illuminating the core story. In fact some fundamental issues are lost and with it much of the poetry. Otello is not a Fascist commander on a Greek Isle, but a Venetian hero. He is also a Moor, a fact not apparent at the performance on 9th July, and in any case, difficult to reconcile with the Aryan policies of the period. The costumes correspond accordingly to the period and provide a beautifully variegated canvass of styles and models of the thirties, especially in the crowd scenes. The cream outfits for Desdemona and Emilia in the second act, were however, particularly unflattering and Desdemona’s bright green nightdress and gown with fur cuffs made her look anything but innocent. The opening storm scene was deafening, the sound-effects, superimposed bombing, lightning and thunder, covering the orchestra. Even the braying of the brass couldn’t be heard. A pity, because the orchestra performed with relish and perceptiveness throughout the opera. As in the previous evening’s Rigoletto the brass seemed generally to be held down, only finally shining brightly in the fanfare for the arrival of the Venetian ambassadors. Overall, the strings, too, could have allowed themselves a greater lushness. A tender cello quartet solo, sweetly and swiftly transformed the atmosphere for the love duet, a vibrant and heart-rendering double bass solo after the Ave Maria created a sense of impending tragedy and the haunting beauty of the cor anglais solos delicately transmitted Desdemona’s sense of melancholy. The conductor, Christian Badea, expertly maintained the balance between orchestra, soloists and chorus, smoothly negotiating the complexity of the continuing emotional changes. His tempi flowed seamlessly from episode to episode and his expressive gesture was always perfectly proportioned to the dramatic intention. Only in the love duet at the end of the first act would a little more languor have highlighted the sensuousness of the music and the moment.
The renowned heldentenor, Simon O’Neill was an arresting Otello with a notable physical stage-presence. His slender tenor voice moved evenly throughout the range, his diction was distinct and his top notes rang out clearly. A lack of depth and variety of colour especially in his middle and lower registers deprived the part of stronger characterization especially in the rapid shifts of mood within his monologues.  Claudio Sgura gave an impressive performance as Iago. His elegant, tall, trim figure moved with ease, and self-assurance. Every gesture was both contemplated and natural, his interpretation was lucid and determined and he was vocally secure and expressive. This protean monster’s Credo was both an articulate and malevolent rant. A rivetting performance. Equally convincing, was James Egglestone as Cassio. Perfectly cast for the role, his lyric tenor soared over the company with ease, beautiful and beguiling. His character was well-defined, his acting extremely natural and his diction pungent. The sword fight, the drunkenness, the confusion the contrition were grippingly real. Lianna Haroutounian as Desdemona displayed a full and generous lyric spinto soprano which was shown to best advantage in the dramatic third act where she easily rang out over a fully blown orchestra, chorus and soloist ensemble. If the love duet lacked pliability and the Willow Song an otherworldliness, the Ave Maria was sung with intimate intensity and the final bars were graced with pathos and spun pianissimi. Solid support was given by Jacqueline Dark as Emilia, David Corcoran as Roderigo and Pelham Andrews as Lodovico. Richard Anderson as Montano and Tom Hamilton as a herald completed the cast. The chorus was superb. From the stunning opening, when as refugees they spilled down the staircase, a barrage of sound invested the audience. Their sound was strong, full and compact, just as it was hushed and controlled. No one voice was ever apparent. The voices are firm and clear their interpretation expressive and appropriate, their intonation perfect, their musicianship precise and refined and their participation impassioned. A striking and compelling performance. Photo Branco Gaica