COC’s final production of the season ends with an austere Otello, coloured with novel moments and strong musicality.
Verdi: Otello. Russell Thomas (Otello), Tamara Wilson (Desdemona), Gerald Finley (Iago), Andrew Haji (Cassio), Carolyn Sproule (Emilia), Owen McCausland (Roderigo), Brandon Cedel (Montano), Onay Kose (Lodovico). Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and Chorus, Johannes Debus, conductor, David Alden, director. Four Seasons Centre, April 27, 2019.
The Canadian Opera Company chose Otello as its final production for the 2018-19 season. Verdi’s penultimate opera, it is considered the composer’s crowning glory, the excellence of his last work Falstaff notwithstanding. Based on performance statistics (2004-2018) Otello is Verdi’s 7th most popular opera, ranked 24th among over 2,000 existing works. It received 2,145 performances from 451 productions worldwide.
The considerable musical and dramatic challenges of Otello require singing actors of the first order, artists who possess not just beautiful voices but capable of fully embodying their roles. This COC revival fits the bill, with three superlative singers in the principal roles. American tenor Russell Thomas, last heard as Pollione in Norma at the COC, returns as the Moor. American soprano Tamara Wilson, another frequent COC guest artist, returns as Desdemona, while the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley takes on Iago a role he has sung with distinction elsewhere.
This David Alden production has been updated from the 16th-century (the time of the story) to the time of composition (1880’s or so). The single unit set of a distressed castle has an austere and minimalist aesthetic, with little in way of furnishings. It underscores the war-torn nature of the story. The wall upstage opens to reveal beautiful frescos at one point, aided by effective lighting. This stylized minimalism is a double-edged sword — while one isn’t distracted by unnecessary pageantry, its puzzling sparseness creates its own distraction. This likely is the only Otello production in history where Desdemona has no bed to die on.
A novel treatment is the opening storm scene, with highly choreographed movements synchronized to the music. Rather artificial bordering on musical theatre, to my eyes it works by heightening the dramatic intensity. More puzzling is the introduction of a mute character whom I will call the “Mad Woman” in this scene, reminiscent of a similar mute character in the Alden production of Rigoletto seen last season. The purpose of both characters eludes me. Another curiosity is the presence of an icon of the Madonna, which Otello (a Moor) carries around at one point. In any case, these minor directorial quirks do not seriously detract from what’s essentially a rather conventional staging.
The chief pleasure of this revival is musical and vocal. Russell Thomas is unusual in that he doesn’t have the baritonal heft one has come to expect among Otello tenors. That said he has sufficient volume, even if not quite the penetrating power. His top register is secure and he’s dramatically believable. Tamara Wilson brings a bright, beautiful, rich, and essentially lyric soprano to Desdemona, with enough power for the climaxes and plenty of chiaroscuro, including a caressing high pianissimo. They have good chemistry together, which is always a plus.
Top vocal honours on opening night belonged to Gerald Finley as Iago. Possessing a gorgeous baritone — almost too beautiful for Iago — he sang with beautiful tone and his treatment of the text was exemplary. He also refrained from over-the-top histrionics, as a result not the last word in villainy, but it sure was a pleasure to the ear. Among the supporting characters, kudos to tenor Andrew Haji who sang Cassio with uncommon beauty. A big guy, Haji is not self-conscious and he handled the fight scene well.
Conducting his first Otello, COC Music Director Johannes Debus led the orchestra in a completely idiomatic reading of the inspired score. The COC Chorus was its usually excellent self, handling the choreographic burden with aplomb.
One final observation — unlike all other staging of this opera I’ve seen, where Iago invariably runs off, he remains onstage in the production at the end, quietly observing the dead Otello and Desdemona as the last bars sounded. Underscoring the triumph of evil? A disquieting thought! A satisfying evening at the opera and highly recommended.
Seven more performances to May 21.