Mon 11 Mar 2013
Giuseppe Verdi - Otello
Opera North, 2013 | Richard Farnes, Tim Albery, Ronald Samm, Elena Kelessidi, David Kempster, Michael Wade Lee, Ann Taylor, Christopher Turner, Henry Waddington, Dean Robinson, Paul Gibson | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 9 March 2013
There are some operas that are so emotionally raw and overwhelming that they are almost too much to bear. Sometimes you wish the singers and the orchestra would just tone it down a little, purely for the sake of those poor souls of a more delicate sensibility. Verdi’s Otello is one of those operas. You go into it knowing what is in store and hope you can get through it relatively unscathed. From the opening moments of Opera North’s new 2013 production, seen at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, with the chorus, orchestra and thunder sound effects resounding around the theatre right from the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those occasions.
Otello is of course one of Verdi’s darkest operas, but I wasn’t aware quite how dark it was until I heard Opera North’s production. It’s a late, mature Verdi work, Verdi doing Shakespeare moreover with a sophisticated libretto provided by Arrigo Boito that is composed to the highest levels of subtlety in the characterisation and in the musical arrangements. It’s a piece of the utmost dramatic integrity, with no overture, no show-stopping arias or interludes for ballets. It’s direct, to the point and, in as far it describes characters capable of the extremities of human feelings, Otello takes no prisoners. That much I already knew and had experienced before.
With the sheer force of the huge choral arrangements, the volume of the orchestration and the thunder and lightning effects accompanying the opening storm, it seemed like Opera North were going to play this mature Verdi like one of his early pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder. There’s nothing wrong with those early works of Verdi, but should Otello not be handled with a little more delicacy than Oberto or even the composer’s earlier Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth? Richard Farnes, Tim Albery and the orchestra of the Opera North show that there is a case for the score of Otello to be thunderously played, for the extreme emotional content to be sung resoundingly, for the dramatic interpretation to be played to the hilt, and every ounce of human emotion to be wrung out of the work. You would expect no less from Shakespeare’s play, so why not Verdi too?
There’s a reason why the delicate sensibility of the listener shouldn’t be spared the ravages of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello‘ or Verdi’s Otello, and that’s because they are works that explore the extremes of love, hatred, jealousy, beauty, compassion and delicacy. Act I of Verdi’s Otello alone is a masterful expression of a whole range of human characteristics, from the fear over the fate of Otello’s fleet in the storm, jubilation at the Moor’s success in battle with the Turks which turns into celebration at the garrison in Cyprus where the boisterous play turns into a brawl. That’s followed by a tender love-scene between Otello and Desdemona. And then Act II has Iago’s famous Credo and the bitter poison of jealousy spreads into every aspect of all those joyous moments of the first act.
That’s wonderfully presented in Tim Albery’s meticiously pitched production for Opera North which has been updated to what looks like a WWII-era marine barracks. Act I is bustling with life with Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio energetically leaping over tables to take part in a violent brawl, David Kempster’s Iago delivers Act II’s Credo forcefully and without histrionics, while the confrontation between Ronald Samm’s imposing Otello and Elena Kelessidi’s delicate Desdemona is violent and shocking. And it should be when you know what dark passions have been stirred and where they are going to lead. That’s warning enough for you to steel yourself for where Act IV takes us, but the conclusion nonetheless still manages to take you unawares.
That’s down to Verdi’s brilliant scoring of the work, and in this case, a perfect reading of those intentions by Albery, Farnes and the Opera North team, where the perspective and the tone of Act IV is determined by Desdemona. Her beautiful nature, her kindness and generosity towards Cassio, her love for Otello is an antidote to the sentiments and nature that has been twisted in the testosterone-fuelled duelling that has taken place in the previous acts. Rather than lessen the impact of the charged atmosphere that has been created of course, this only makes it more tragic. The finale, like the rest of the performance here, was superbly balanced in this respect, maximising impact, perfectly in accord with the delicate Wagnerian leitmotifs that Verdi employs so effectively at those key moments.
The challenges of playing Otello were compounded by the effort made to perform it at this ultra-charged level of high emotion. The performance of the Opera North Orchestra was a loud and muscular one, yet it was one that was at the same time very carefully attuned to the fluid changes and subtleties of the range of musical expression. That could nonetheless potentially present problems for singers who not only have to match the powerful nature of the sentiments expressed here, but also rise above the sheer volume of sound that was coming from the orchestra pit. Otello is evidently the most challenging role, as much for singing as for making his jealous nature comprehensible if not exactly sympathetic, and Ronald Samm coped extremely well with the singing challenges, but just as importantly succeeded in creating a rounded human portrayal of the devastation a man can wreak upon himself.
A full picture of Otello however cannot be achieved without a sympathetic Desdemona to bring out those human qualities - the noble ones as well as the less admirable ones - and Elena Kelessdi was just such a Desdemona. Any minor concerns at times that she might not be able to hold her own against the forceful delivery of Samm or David Kempster’s Iago were soon put to rest by her spirited performance and an Act IV that really hit the mark in its expression of her character’s nature. Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio was also spot-on in his wearing of his heart on his sleeve, giving an open, unguarded and enthusiastic performance. Special mention should be made of the Opera North’s Chorus and the Children’s Chorus which really punctuated the work with the necessary impact at the critical moments in the drama. I’m sure I’ll see a few more Verdi operas before this bicentenary year is over, but I’ll be surprised if anything forces a reevaluation of one of the composer’s works as much as this muscular and sensitive performance of Otello by Opera North.