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The Amazing Moor of Lucca

Teatro del Giglio
01/18/2019 -  & January 20*, 2019
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Mikheil Sheshaberidze (Otello), Luca Micheletti (Iago), Giuseppe Tommaso (Cassio), Giacomo Leone (Roderigo), Ion Stancu (Lodovico), Paolo Gatti (Montano), Andrea Pistolesi (Un araldo), Elisa Balbo (Desdemona), Antonella Carpenito (Emilia), ‘DanzActori’ Trilogia d'autunno
Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘Vincenzo Bellini’, Martino Faggiani (Chorus master), Coro Voci Bianche Teatro del Giglio e Cappella Santa Cecilia di Lucca, Sara Matteucci (Chorus master), Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, Nicola Paszkowski (Conductor)
Cristina Mazzavillani Muti (Stage director), Alessandro Lai (Costumes) Vincent Languemare (Lighting)

L. Micheletti, M. Sheshaberidze (© Zani-Casadio)

Lucca is an unusual city in Tuscany. It is a rarity in that it is a relatively large city that is mostly reserved for pedestrians within its ancient city walls. This gives it an unusual flair: beautiful, well preserved and lively. It is also an exceptional city for music. The birthplace of Puccini, one can still visit the house where he was born. It also offers cafes, restaurants, bars and retailers bearing such names as “Manon Lescaut, La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot.” Its opera house, Teatro del Giglio, will celebrate its bicentennial in September. However, it is much older than that. Built in 1675, making it one of the world’s oldest opera houses, it was baptized Teatro del Giglio in 1819, during the reign of Maria-Luisa, a Spanish Bourbon, Duchess of Lucca.

Venerable thanks to its long history, Teatro del Giglio, with a capacity of 750 spectators, is also extraordinary in other ways. This is the second opera I’ve attended in Lucca, and I am amazed by the quality of its productions, and especially by its judicious choice of singers. The cast for this Otello could not have been better. The three leading singers were first rate. Most amazing was Georgian tenor Mikheil Sheshaberidze who has the demanding vocal requirements for the taxing title role. An Otello of this calibre has not been heard since the days of Mario del Monaco and Jon Vickers. Unlike many heroic tenors, the timbre is not baritonal but truly that of a tenor. His amazing instrument sounded effortlessly gorgeous in all registers; not a single high note was forced or strained during the entire performance. In addition, his diction in Italian was clearer than many Italian singers. The true miracle for a voice of this size is to also be able to perform with nuance and expressiveness, which he did expertly. In his third act soliloquy, “Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali,” following his confrontation with Desdemona, he impressed with his emphasis of the words “vergogna,” “menzogna” and “angoscie.” Likewise, his “A terra!... e piangi!” and the emphatic cursing of Desdemona, “Anima mia, ti maledico!,” were brutal. The stage director did not make this Otello use black makeup to portray the Moor.

This production’s Iago, baritone Luca Micheletti, was an ideal choice. The voice was suited to the role and most importantly he’s a first-rate actor. From the opening scene, watching Otello’s ship go through the storm, his facial expressions made it clear the outcome he would have preferred. He acted like a true puppet-master directing Cassio toward the ill-advised asking of Desdemona for Otello’s forgiveness for his lack of sobriety. He was near demonic in manipulating Otello to enrage him. He transformed into evil incarnate while managing to avoid excess in his portrayal. By using his expressive face to convey his emotions, by changing from a tone of concerned friendship to a revolting sweetness while addressing Otello, he was able to achieve much without resorting to histrionics. His amazing sense of phrasing in his Act 2 Credo reveals a crafty actor: “Son scellerato perchè son uomo,” “Credo che il giusto è un istrion beffardo” and “La Morte è il Nulla, è vecchia fola il Ciel” are uttered in a way that clearly confirms his cynical soul. In Act 2, he shatters Otello with his narration of Cassio’s apocryphal dream by savouring the words “Il rio destino impreco che al Moro ti donò.”

Elisa Balbo’s Desdemona was weaker than Otello and Iago. Her lyric soprano is pleasant but possibly too light. Her vocal technique is secure but her phrasing insufficient. Blond Desdemona the pure can be quite pale next to passionate Otello and manipulative Iago. Despite her innocence, the ideal Desdemona has to shine from within. Balbo was not able to achieve this in part due to sloppy phrasing. In her Act 3 duet with Otello, no emphasis was put on the key words “un grido di minaccia.” Likewise, the key phrase describing Otello’s accusation, “Ah! non son ciò che esprime quella parola orrenda,” was understated. In the final act, however, Balbo was able to shine. She managed to truly convey her fragility, in part thanks to the ingenuous lighting, during her long plaintive Willow Song, “Canzon del Salice.” This long aria can easily bore an audience if not carefully coloured by Desdemona. Balbo managed to interiorize her anguish at the start of the aria, as if simply narrating the sad story of her mother’s forlorn servant girl. She later demonstrated that anguish when it became clear the sad story was a way of recounting her own tribulations, and of foreseeing her doom. Her phrasing of “Il salce funebre sarà la mia ghirlanda” and “Io per amarlo e per morir” were tremendously moving. She artfully sublimated her terror.

Giuseppe Tommaso breathed new life into Cassio. Usually a secondary role, Tornatore managed to almost make the leading trio of Otello, Desdemona and Iago into a quartet. Appropriately good looking to credibly arouse Otello’s jealousy, he had strong stage presence and made the most of his relatively small role. His healthy voice was larger than the small tenor of most Cassios. Of the other supporting roles, Ion Stancu’s Lodovico, the Venetian envoy, was the weakest. His bass was on occasion hollow, failing to convey himself as the imposing symbol of the Serenissima’s power.

The staging of Cristina Mazzavillani Muti is a lesson on how to achieve miracles on a limited budget. The difficult opening storm scene was done with brio by placing the Cypriots and the Venetians on the small stage in such a manner that one had the impression there were multitudes onstage. Smoke, representing the sea mist experienced by onlookers in the harbour, was used instead of the more costly and difficult sea water. Lighting was carefully used to dramatic effect, such as spotlighting blond-haired Desdemona in a white dress to contrast the crowd of Cypriot brunettes in black dresses in the storm scene. She seemed like an angel watching over Otello. Likewise, colour was intelligently used: Desdemona in a white dress to represent her purity juxtaposed with Otello in a red robe, representing his easily exploitable wild passion. In the final act, Desdemona clad in her white dress contrasted with Emilia’s black dress. It felt like a meeting of doomed innocence with misery. Some ideas were less convincing, such as Otello tearing Desdemona’s dress, nearly raping her in the third act. Given the myriad emotions Otello brilliantly expresses, this overstatement threatened to spoil the magic. But tension was accentuated in the Cassio-Iago exchange of Act 3 by having the men move from darkness to light, a metaphor for Cassio’s innocent rantings and Iago’s lugubrious distortions. It was overwhelming to hear Otello in this small theater, yet happily, the orchestra never overwhelmed the voices. The charismatic maestro Nicola Paszkowski conducted the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini with ample brio. This was an evening to remember.

Ossama el Naggar



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