Otello

Otello mini-masthead 500 x 219

Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, not heard in Pittsburgh in over two decades, accomplished the rare feat of bringing a local audience to its feet for a very long and thunderous ovation, when it became the first of Pittsburgh Opera’s performances for 2014-15, on Saturday evening, November 8. A single concert last month was considered the official opening of the company’s 76th season.

Verdi, with an eye on retirement after Aïda, reluctantly set Arrigo Boïto’s libretto, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, to music after a great deal of cajoling, and the four-act opera, destined to become one of his finest works, was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in February 1887. Set in 16th century Cyprus, the opera, like the play, is loaded with betrayal, jealousy, intrigue, mayhem, murder and suicide – all of the ingredients required for a great evening of operatic entertainment.

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The work, Verdi’s penultimate, was presented in lavish style, with fine singers, a remarkably well drilled and powerfully large chorus, effective period costumes and settings, and magnificent work by the orchestra. Despite an occasional glitch in the staging, such as large yellow stars appearing in the deep blue evening sky with a startling suddenness in Act I, the production as a whole was a treat to the eye as well as the ear.

Antony Walker proves himself an even greater conductor with each new work he undertakes. He demonstrated a fine command of the score, and in his usual unobtrusive and subtle manner, achieved a fine orchestral performance. It raged and whispered by turns, never smothering the singers, but also never becoming subordinate to them. The orchestra’s was skillfully nuanced and shaded work, despite one or two occasions when a brass player went jarringly off key. Walker well deserved the applause that erupted each time he came to the podium.

Mark Trawka is to be highly commended on the results he achieved with the very effective chorus, which contributes such a great share to the success of this work. Keeping such a large group of singers in time and tune is no small task, but the results were brilliant.

Tenor Carl Tanner was substantial in appearance and voice as the “Moor” Otello. In Act I, it was obvious that he was either suffering from hoarseness or holding himself in reserve for the greater opportunities to come. Before the curtain rose on Act II, it was explained to the audience that he was suffering from bronchitis. Whether he received medical attention during the intermission or the announcement gave a boost to his confidence, he was restored to powerful voice for the remaining acts. His singing rang forth in clarion tones on numerous occasions, although his acting is slightly conventional, and in the justly famous Act II duet (“Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!”) with the treacherous Iago, he rose to perhaps his finest moments. Here, though, as elsewhere in the production, better staging would have created a more poignant effect – Otello and Iago should sing to each other, not to the audience. However, that large gathering made it abundantly clear with each curtain fall that Tanner’s performance was greatly appreciated.

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Anthony Michaels-Moore, (pictured above) as Iago, Otello’s scheming and villainous ensign, sang and acted the role in fine form. The seasoned baritone presents a remarkably youthful appearance (his debut at Covent Garden, London, took place in 1987), and his voice and acting are fresh and vivid. The audience loved to hate him, and he was met at the final curtain calls by a tidal wave of applause.

Danielle Pastin, as the hapless, betrayed Desdemona, displayed remarkable singing and acting abilities, and her pure, limpid yet powerful soprano tones were a constant source of delight through the evening. She presented a lovely stage appearance, and her delivery of the “Willow Song”/”Ave Maria” scene in the last act was a tour de force of heart-breaking beauty. She has a fine and well-balanced concept of the difficult and complex role she portrayed.

The smaller parts were in quite capable hands. As Emilia, wife of Iago and Desdemona’s “duenna,” Laurel Semerdjian made the most of the little she had to sing by displaying a mezzo-soprano of lovely, firm quality. She has the fine sense of “repose” so necessary in a role that requires the subtle art of listening and reacting to what is taking place around her. Her appearances in other productions later in the season will be looked forward to, and it is easy to imagine this talented young woman rising to greater heights.

Daniel Curran (Cassio), Phillip Gay (Lodovico), Alex DeSocio (Montano),Adam Bonanni (Roderigo), and Jesse Lee Davis II (Herald) effectively rounded out the ensemble. They were a fine-looking, spirited, and vocally gifted group of men, and each contributed in no small way to the success of the production.

The opera will be repeated on November 11, 14, and 16 (the Sunday matinee), and patronage is highly encouraged.

For full upcoming production, cast, schedule, and ticket information, please visit www.pittsburghopera.org

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Opera for two complimentary press tickets.

“The Artistic Team” for Otello

Kristine Walker, Stage Director; Allen Charles Klein, Set Designer;Malabar Limited, Costume Designer; Marcus Dilliard, Lighting Designer; James Geier, Wig & Make-up Designer; Peter Kope and Dane Toney, Fight Choreography; Glenn Lewis, Assistant Conductor; James Lesniak, Associate Coach/Pianist; Jennifer Williams, Assistant Director; Teri Jo Fuson, Stage Manager. Photo credits: David Bachman.

Performance Date: November 8, 2014