The following review is based on the Wednesday, May 17th performance.
There are simply sad stories, and then there are evocative tragedies that, with the masterstroke of a pen, perceptively underline the follies of people who can sometimes fall mercy to overwrought emotions exacerbated by insecurities. When Shakespeare published Othello in 1604, it mesmerized the world, but it wasn’t until Giuseppe Verdi’s adaptation in 1887 (with libretto by Arrigo Boito) when the concept of Otello was reinvigorated with voices beyond the spoken word to tell the infamous tale with heart-pounding singing and music.
When done right, the four-act Otello, fueled by a jealous rancor in its titular character who responds to a mere seedling of suspicion, is a punch to the gut in the best possible way in that, instead of deflating observers, it functions as a scorching reminder of how, why, and what transpires when man is psychologically devastated and left in a vulnerable state. When social-emotional levies that are meant to civilize us have been damaged, the one-track train of madness that sets this premise ablaze might very well characterize any of us; ultimately, this is what makes Otello so compelling as it has the precise capacity to uncomfortably tug at the unconscious mind and heart. LA Opera’s 2023 production of Otello — the first time in 15 years since the juggernaut Italian opera has been presented inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — is circumspectly conducted by James Conlon, while pulling no punches, taking the audience on a ride that doesn’t just suspensefully teeter on the brink of a torturous peril, but pure genius.
The late-16th century narrative begins in the aftermath of the Moorish Otello (Russell Thomas), commander of Venetian naval forces and husband to Venetian royal Desdemona (Rachel Willis-Sørensen), defeating the Turks for possession of the island of Cyprus. Yet, what should have marked a celebratory occasion that foretold happiness soon turns sour. The party responsible for this is the embittered and conniving Iago (Igor Golovatenko), ensign to Otello, who, because he was passed over for the rank of captain by the young Cassio (Anthony Ciaramitaro), goes down a spiteful path by planting a series of lies regarding Desdemona’s faithfulness to effectively torment Otello, who adores his wife to the point of obsession. Iago learns he can despicably play Roderigo (Anthony León), a nobleman who desires Desdemona, but especially Cassio, who is at first trusted by Otello and is a good friend of Desdemona, like chess pieces to suit his unholy aims. When Cassio unwittingly finds himself being Iago’s pawn, an embroidered handkerchief that Otello had gifted his wife becomes the article of “evidence” the dastardly ensign needs to fully accomplish his end goal of humiliating Otello down to his very last straw of sanity.
Throughout the production’s three-hour-and-twenty-minute duration on a raised and sloped stage, Otello’s unravelling is as compelling as any piece of theatre one might experience. Thomas, who purportedly secured the role of a lifetime when he informally auditioned for Plácido Domingo in 2017 when the latter was still general director, gives one of the best performances LA Opera’s history. The dramatic tenor and artist in residence, who forged his familiarity with Otello four years ago at the Canadian Opera Company, immerses himself without pause. Thomas handily paces his every action, calling forth a range of his emotions to tell the anguished protagonist’s arc with an intensity that seethes in late Act II/early Act III (before it becomes piercingly resolute), like in the solo “Now and Forever Farewell, Holy Memories” and the dual-voiced “God Keep You Merry, Husband.”
Those who lament that opera performers are lacking in the acting area should look no further than the astute Thomas; he has an uncanny ability to make one believe his persona is truly being torn asunder by uncertainty. Combined with his remarkably expressive timbre, Thomas elevates John Cox’s original production and punctuates his scenes with a fiery intent that must make director Joel Ivany immensely proud.
Russian baritone Golovatenko gives a nuanced performance as arguably the central figure in Iago, who, while unmistakably poisonous, is almost personable as he is equipped with a disarming charisma. Villainy comes in many forms and this Iago is the most deceptive kind, patiently and contentedly laying the groundwork to crumble the foundation of Otello’s home. Golovatenko makes the starkest impression with “I Believe in a Cruel God,” stoking a radical horror but simultaneously delighting with his agreeable voice.
Iago’s snake-like tendencies come through in the way he paints Ciaramitaro’s Cassio as a perpetual drunkard, which then indirectly pits Cassio against León’s Roderigo and the versatile Alan Williams’ Montano who unenviably finds himself in a duel with the new captain who is demoted as a consequence. “Wet Your Throat” highlights not just the upper registers of Ciaramitaro and León, but signals the spinning of Iago’s spiderweb which lures without delay. That said, Iago’s main target is Otello and the duets “That Worries Me…What Did You Say?” and “Yes, By the Marble Heavens I Swear” are magnificent for the layering of two disparate voices and for accentuating some of the best character work in the opera.
In contrast to Iago, Desdemona is thoroughly awash with a sympathetic goodness, despite being weighed down by misunderstandings — which is outwardly felt by Willis-Sørensen’s depiction. Having been used to performing in pressurized environments, like the Buckingham Palace for the then Prince Charles’ birthday, the internationally recognized soprano, who is making her LA Opera debut, makes it look effortless, radiating with each lush note she smoothly belts out. When her Desdemona is besieged by furious accusations from her suspecting husband (“Terrified, I Face Your Dreadful Look”), is rendered virtually helpless (“Fallen! Yes, in the Foul Mud…”), or plaintively recalls earlier memories of her mother’s servant Barbara via the “Willow Song,” Willis-Sørensen is decidedly intentional with her vocal choices, each note resonating with rawness.
Two other notable principals include Morris Robinson, who, as the Venetian ambassador Lodovico, is ever the captivating bass powerhouse, and UCLA graduate Sarah Saturnino, who, as Iago’s displeased wife and confidant of Desdemona, Emilia, stuns with her mezzo-soprano wares in the climactic scene.
Last, but not least, among a cast that surpasses an astonishing total of 100, are the chorus members who celebrate Otello’s safe return from the sea in “Fire of Joy” and, with tunics and flower crowns, offer a convivial respite from the burgeoning vehemence of the plot, albeit a brief one, with “Wherever You Look, Brightness Shines…” Conversely, thanks to chorus director Jeremy Frank, when the ensemble needs to raise and reinforce the alarm that sonically surrounds the plot, they’re able to accomplish that just as credibly as they do in the hair-raising introduction chronicling Otello’s naval battle.
Setting the appropriately darkened mood is Johan Engels whose gloomy scenery and mostly solid-colored costumes communicate not just solemnity but a calm-before-the-storm urgency that threatens to engulf the stage. Driving a similar effect is the lighting by Jason Hand, who knows when to illuminate the characters or shroud them in shadows that portend an inauspicious conclusion. Fight and intimacy director Andrew Kenneth Moss has helped effect some of the blighted body language emoted by Thomas and Willis-Sørensen; not to mention, the swordplay credited to him, as carried out by Williams’ Montano and Ciaramitaro’s Cassio, feels acute enough to complement the high-stakes milieu.
Captaining this operatic ship, as he has done with flying colors multiple times over, is the invariably dependable Conlon who doesn’t get enough credit for interpreting and channeling Verdi’s material which is then fervently actualized by his orchestra and the consummate vocalists who ensure they make an impact with each phrase.
Suffice it to say, LA Opera’s latest staging of Otello is the perfect production to cap off the 2022-23 season as it consistently balances flawless character portraits and insightful storytelling with goosebumps-inducing singing and musicianship. The outcome is a polished work that would have duly satisfied both Shakespeare and Verdi. LA Opera may have indeed saved its best for last with Otello as its mainstage season finale, which is saying a lot given how well-received some of the preceding operas have been over the past year.
There are only four more performances of LA Opera’s production of Otello, which runs through June 4th, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: Saturday, May 20th at 7:30 pm, Sunday, May 28th at 2 pm, Thursday, June 1st at 7:30 pm, and finally Sunday, June 4th at 2 pm. For more information, and to purchase tickets to Otello, please visit: laopera.org