Verdi, we might surmise, was a somewhat vain man who might’ve fit in well with the hyper-narcississtic milieu in which we’re drowning today. After the runaway success of Aida, in 1871, he was mightily pleased with himself and decided to rest on his laurels, in early retirement. His zealous, Milano-based publisher Guilio Ricordi wasn’t about to give up so easily (there was a buck in it for him). Librettist (and a composer himself) Arrigo Boito was in on the conspiracy, trying to lure the 58-year-old back to the opera, along with conductor (also a composer) Franco Faccio. Ricordi knew Verdi had a weakness for Shakespeare, so the bard was his barb.
Opera Australia has to factor in bucks too, so when major sponsors like Mazda kicked up a stink about vicious, homophobic comments promulgated via social media by the production’s star, Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri, it finally had to act, by kicking her back to Tbilisi. And after all the kerfuffle, it’s OA that’s come out on top, having happened upon a devastatingly good Desdemona, in the form of young Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian.
Haroutounian is the very best thing about the production, originally directed by Berlin-born Harry Kupfer in 2003, who made one set suffice for all four acts. It’s an ugly one, too. Essentially a flight of stairs covered with a crucifix of tattered-and-torn, scarlet-and-gold, brocaded carpet, it lurches uncomfortably at an angle, as if the substantial building in which it’s enclosed has been rocked by a massive bomb. There’s a gaping hole in the ceiling and grotesque gothic lamps, of the tastelessly outsized sort one might’ve seen on a Munich street, back in the glory days. To complement, Yan Tax has dressed many of the cast in the all-too-familiar, militaristic guise and garb of the Reich. Ornate period furniture and a row of louvred doors at the top of the steps complete a dingy picture, illuminated only by Toby Sewell’s cold, unforgiving lighting. It’s a portrait of devastation, prefiguring the bone-shaking drama that’s to come. To that extent, it’s effective and underpinned by robust ideas, but it’s still ugly and we have to look at it for three hours. Nor does it help what is way too static a production, hampered by the fact the cast has to almost continuously and literally watch its step. Aside from the neo-Nazi officer clobber, the costumes look like they’ve been bought, wholesale, sight unseen, from a backblocks fancy dress outlet having a clearance sale.
But if we set aside the set, there’s much on offer. Otello veritably explodes into action, as the orchestra portrays a ship on stormy seas: it’s so loud, the acoustics of the Joan Sutherland Theatre can’t quite contain the dynamics and distortion is the result. Also, unless my ears deceived me, sound effects were used to augment the musical illustration; a reprehensible artistic decision, because it only serves to muddy the waters of the supposed crashing crescendo of waves. But this is really the only musical quibble: Christian Badea really puts the redoubtable Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra through its paces and, as usual, it comes up trumps, even with this exceptionally demanding, if commensurately rewarding score.
Of the background players, it’s only really Jacqueline Dark, as Desdemona’s hand-maiden, Emilia, that shines (or is afforded the opportunity, as roles filled by the likes of, say, James Egglestone and David Corcoran, while important to the narrative, offer relatively little in respect of singing). We’re reminded of agility and translucence that seem to trick and transcend the tessitura of her textbook mezzo, along with finely-calibrated control and character that can only really come from maturity. Cabernet merlot: aristocratic, yet warm and soft.
The focus is really on three voices: the Machiavellian scoundrel, Iago; Otello; Desdemona. Italian Claudio Sgura was recruited as Iago and, judging by audience response on opening night, is likely to prove a favourite throughout the season. And for good reason. His is a self-assured, commanding baritone, with a dark chocolate power and intensity befitting his monstrously manipulative character. Kiwi Simon O’Neill is Otello and once his tenor hit its stride, it punched with awesome power in the upper register, so impressively it almost made me forget about some lacking lower down. But, again, it was Haroutounian’s almost insurpassably ripe, luscious tone, abundantly evident all the way up and down her designated range that pinned my ears back and set my heart to pounding.
Boito’s text has been described as faithful (to Shakespeare). It isn’t. It’s certainly justified and Boito has a brilliance of his own and a poetic way with words. He also draw the key characters vividly. The pity of it is, in this production, the acting leaves a lot to be desired: it’s often stiff and laughably melodramatic, though Sgura does reasonably well with Iago. And in vocal interpretation, Haroutounian really engenders compassion for the distressingly wronged Desdemona. Verdi’s score is superbly counterpointed: while he uses the orchestra as a single instrument to rage, there is sublime delicacy in the love duet between Otello and Desdemona, as well as in Desdemona’s tragic aria of premonition later on. Not even Chisel’s last stand compares as a comeback.
When one considers the unforeseen difficulties in restating this production, Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini can have the last laugh: he’s probably ended up with a much better Desdemona than he started with, in more ways than one.
Featured image by Branco Gaica