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A sobering Otello

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
02/03/2010 -  & February 6*, 10, 13, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Clifton Forbis (Otello), Tiziana Caruso (Desdemona), Scott Hendricks (Iago), Jamie Barton (Emilia), Emanuele D'Aguanno (Cassio), Adam Luther (Roderigo), Alain Coulombe (Monterone), Yuri Vorobiev (Lodovico), Justin Welsh (a Herald)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Paolo Olmi (Conductor)
Paul Curran (Director), Paul Edwards (Set & Costume Designer), David Martin Jacques (Lighting Designer)

T. Caruso & C. Forbis (© Michael Cooper)

Otello has returned to the Canadian Opera Company after a 10-year absence, this time in a production from the Welsh National Opera.

Just as in their earlier COC productions, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Tosca, director Paul Curran and designer Paul Edwards have delivered a production that attempts to fulfil the requirements of the libretto and this is by and large successful. A high point is Act III, Scene II, with the arrival of the Venetian dignitaries and attendant crowd scene, amidst which the work’s central domestic tragedy reaches a climax. With lavish costumes and skillful massing of the performers, the stage looks like a Gentile Bellini picture come to life.

One scenic element is a pile of jagged masonry stage left which provides a good lurking spot for Iago and then Otello, as the ensign works to poison his commander against Cassio and Desdemona. It outlives its usefulness, however, as it is still there in the final act - incongruously in Desdemona’s bedroom.

Paolo Olmi impressed me in 2007 when he conducted Don Carlos in Toronto. He is if anything even more impressive with Otello. One example: the meltingly beautiful phrases introducing the love scene that ends Act I. One can only wish the delicate beauty of the introductory music continued in the love duet, but alas this is where the production fails to achieve what should be a key dramatic element, namely letting the audience in on what Desdemona sees in Otello. His first two brief appearances on stage are in stentorian mode, when he triumphantly brandishes the captured Turkish flag, and then breaks up the drunken brawl engineered by Iago. Clifton Forbis compresses his voice in an effort to achieve a floating, rapturous tone, but in the end it eludes him. In addition, many concluding notes are truncated. He does extremely well, however, in later scenes during which Iago’s plot drives him further toward frenzy. The great vengeance duet that end Act II (Si pel ciel), for example, is a definite high point (as it ought to be).

Tiziana Caruso is a real discovery, a spinto with a blooming, creamy sound. There is also a touch of wildness in her voice, thus giving an impression of Desdemona as a real person, not just a naive victim. She also looks great in Paul Edward’s glamorous décolleté gowns. If her pianissimo is closer to piano at times, perhaps she is matching up with a tenor whose piano is closer to mezzo forte.

Scott Hendricks played the good guy (Rodrigue) in Don Carlos in 2007, and now plays the villain with full gleeful malice - and excellent singing, too, displaying a full expressive range.

Emanuele D’Aguanno (Cassio), with a track record in bel canto roles, has an appealing voice but is frequently overpowered; even though Cassio is not a lead role, it still requires spinto heft.

The third tenor role in the cast is Roderigo, performed by Adam Luther, a young singer who has done good work in the past two seasons. Unfortunately he gets lost in the melee. Cassio, Roderigo and Iago are all dressed similarly and as a result there are moments when the stage action is difficult to follow. Many plot points are presented quickly and an audience needs clear visual cues.

One dramatic innovation: Cassio hands a dagger to the despairing Otello in the final scene and then prevents Monterone and Lodovico from intervening in his suicide. It's not in Shakepseare, but it works well.

Having Jamie Barton perform Emilia is an example of luxury casting. When she finally does have her moment - in the final act when she reveals Iago’s subterfuge with the handkerchief - it really counts for something.

Alain Coulombe is an authoritative Monterone. Yuri Vorobiev makes a solid impression as Lodovico, as does Justin Welsh in the brief role of the Herald.

Both orchestra and chorus are up to their usual high standard, the chorus exceptionally so.

In the end, audience reaction is on the muted side. Shakespeare, Boito and Verdi worked hard to create a brutally flawed anti-hero. The audience is supposed to sympathize, and there certainly is pathos when he is told of his murdered wife’s innocence. By then, though, the damage has been done and up until then he has been too much the hollering fool, too easily duped.

Michael Johnson



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