Opera Australia currently celebrates Guiseppe Verdi’s OTELLO with a very fine revival currently playing at the Sydney Opera House.
This production was first successfully presented in 2003, then returned in 2008. Costumed as twentieth century civilians, officers, senators or ambassadors, the cast and chorus perform in fine voice above the orchestra led with great clarity by Christian Badea.
Verdi’s shifting orchestral textures and scoring for separate instrumental sections could even be said to play the role of atmospheric film music, enhancing the story and dialogue. The score’s dramatic subtleties and climaxes were at all times successfully maintained by Badea’s control of his orchestra.
The story of ‘Othello’ from Shakespeare follows the Moor and his new Venetian bride who are destroyed by Iago, revenging his recent demotion in Othello’s troops. A huge statue of the god Atlas is the centrepiece to a steep staircase set on stage. New Zealand-born tenor Simon O’Neill brings the heavily burdened and insecure Otello to our shores, as well as explosive reactions and a superb command of the stage. His heroic tenor voice soars over Cyprus, through the Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre and to the cast spilling down the set in his initial ‘Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar’.
The early love duet ‘Già nella notte densa s’estingue ogni clamo’ between Lianna Haroutounian’s Desdemona and O’Neill’s Otello features finely blended lyricism. The balance between the vocalists and orchestra is here simply ‘edge of the seat stuff’, showing us the extra dimension opera adaptations have to offer. Also captivating are Haroutounian’s vocal outbursts and varied vocal colour as she fears jealous Otello. Her versions of the ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’ in Act 4 are exquisite, with stunning shifts in timbre and register. Her acting in other scenes is a fine portrayal of Desdemona’s innocence and panicked disbelief.
Claudio Sgura’s Iago has a truly villainous appearance and stage presence. He moves through the libretto and scored numbers with great flexibility in his baritone voice. Sgura’s ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ is a highlight. It maintained interest through the use of his voice type and physical use of the stage.
Full cast scenes are a vocal and visual feast, with fluid movement, in all directions, despite it being a very ‘full’ stage. The opening sequence for Otello’s stormy arrival is an arresting way to bring both the experienced and first-time audience member into the world of opera and to OTELLO, the opera. The Opera Australia Chorus members are well showcased and elegantly costumed when welcoming the hero as Venetian senators and dignitaries in Act Three with;‘ Il Doge ed il Senato salutano l’eroe trionfatore.’
This production of an opera which brought Verdi out of semi-retirement is a dazzling display of how opera can entertain. It has great appeal as a dynamic and successful production which further enhances the original tragedy whilst demonstrating the possibilities and accessibility of Shakespeare as well as Verdi’s operas.
Opera Australia’s production of OTELLO is playing the Joan Sutherland theatre at the Sydney Opera House until 2nd August.