Opera Review: OTELLO (LA Opera)

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by Michael M. Landman-Karny on May 15, 2023

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello is a timeless masterpiece that showcases the composer’s genius in capturing the dramatic intensity and emotional complexity of William Shakespeare’s tragic play. The opera, which premiered in 1887, has become one of Verdi’s most powerful and musically captivating works, blending intricate vocal lines, sweeping orchestration, and a powerful narrative.

Through Otello, Verdi — using an Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito — was able to bring Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to life with unparalleled passion and intensity. The music is an exquisite example of Verdi’s genius and a testament to his ability to capture the nuances of Shakespeare’s play. It stands as one of the composer’s crowning achievements and continues to captivate audiences around the world.

The tragedy follows the downfall of the noble Moorish general Otello at the hands of the treacherous Iago. Otello is manipulated into believing his wife Desdemona is unfaithful, and his passionate love for her is countered by Iago’s malevolent schemes. Themes of love, jealousy, betrayal and revenge are expertly interwoven in Verdi’s music, creating a powerful and tragic story of Otello’s relentlessness in his pursuit of justice. Verdi’s use of music to portray the characters’ emotions brings the story to life and highlights the intensity of Otello’s downfall. Verdi’s score is marked by its vivid orchestration and innovative use of leitmotifs, which symbolize the characters and their emotions. Despite Verdi’s denials at the time, his use of leitmotifs and dramatic sweep show the influence of Wagner’s innovations in the art of opera.

The unexciting sets by Johan Engels were abstract rather than realistic. A huge spherical lantern swinging wildly evoked the raging ocean in the opening scene. Cross-shaped scaffolding, flanked by a trinity of squares, underlined the opera’s Christian themes on a stage curved like a shallow bowl. Jason Hand‘s liberal use of red lighting in Act II telegraphed the fatal ending.

As Otello, Russell Thomas delivered a magnetic performance that had the audience in the palm of his hand. During the tender moments, his voice displayed beautiful timbre and impressive control. Thomas’s wonderful acting skills compensated for somewhat underpowered singing in portraying the complexities of Otello’s passionate outbursts with depth and authenticity. The way he portrayed Otello’s descent into madness and jealousy was particularly gripping.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen sang the part of Desdemona beautifully, showcasing a beautiful rich voice, an immaculate technique, a well-balanced tone and no hard edges. Her committed acting as the dutiful loving wife created palpable tension as we wait for the inevitable.

Igor Golovatenko gave a committed performance as Iago, fully inhabiting the role of one of the archetypical villains of Western Literature. In the first act of Saturday’s premiere, May 13, he sounded strained, yet his vocal problems disappeared in the second act, in which he gave a vocally solid performance that complemented his committed acting.

In the secondary role of Cassio, Otello’s demoted lieutenant, Anthony Ciaramitaro showcased a beautiful full-colored lyrical tenor and fully inhabited the role of the playful but loyal lieutenant.

In smaller roles, luxury casting included Sarah Saturnino, a recent National Met Council Winner in the small but key role of Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting, giving a go-for-broke performance. Anthony Leon, recent Operalia Grand Prize Winner and National Met Council winner, also shined in the small role of Roderigo. International superstar Bass-Baritone Morris Robinson was a definitive Lodovico.

The LA Opera Chorus, under the direction of Jeremy Frank, deserves special recognition for their outstanding performance. The chorus plays an integral role, their presence adding depth and texture to the dramatic tension. From the tempestuous opening prelude, evoking the raging sea as Otello’s ship arrives in Cyprus, to the more subtle moments of character development, the chorus skillfully inhabits the music and brings the story to life. Their powerful singing and precise acting make each scene memorable, and I was left in awe of the chorus’s talent. The LA Opera Chorus and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus under director Fernando Malvar-Ruiz truly capture the essence of Verdi’s Otello and heighten the experience.

Conductor James Conlon gave a rendition of Otello that was true to the composer’s intention rather than putting any kind of egocentric stamp on the proceedings. He was an attentive and commanding accompanist, never overpowering the singers, but also providing the sturm und drang in the orchestral and choral sections.

photos by Cory Weaver / L.A. Opera

LA Opera
co-production with Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Teatro Regio di Parma
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 North Grand Ave.
Wednesday, May 17, 2023, at 7:30 pm
Saturday, May 20, 2023, at 7:30pm
Sunday, May 28, 2023, at 2pm
Thursday, June 1, 2023, at 7:30pm
Sunday, June 4, 2023, at 2pm
for tickets, call 213. 972.8001 or visit LA Opera

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