Oct 24–Nov 7
Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave.
When Giuseppe Verdi began writing Otello in 1884, he was under pressure to produce something avant-garde. Many critics felt he had sunk into an old-fashioned rut, especially in comparison to Wagner, who had died the previous year. But with the critical help of genius librettist Arrigo Boito, Verdi pulled off a work that is sometimes called the greatest opera of the 19th century. Houston Grand Opera opens their season with a production of Otello that deserves to be considered one of the best of the 21st century.
Otello begins with a victorious battle and ends with the conquering hero brought to his knees by a dainty handkerchief—just one of the dramatic ironies in this opera based on Shakespeare's tragedy. Otello, a Venetian general, has just destroyed the Turkish fleet and married Desdemona. In the first act, he leaps off his boat to a rousing chorus, but elation does not linger. His ensign and trusted friend, Iago, is bitterly jealous that Otello promoted his rival Cassio to captain. Shrewdly, Iago orchestrates a master plan for revenge. Using Desdemona’s white handkerchief as evidence of her infidelity with Cassio, Iago wages a cruel, psychological battle against Otello, all the while feigning friendship.
Despite its tragic plot, the opera is a divine experience with the right cast. Ailyn Pérez, a soprano with an exceptionally brilliant vocal color, was the ideal Desdemona: effortlessly beautiful, pure, and sympathetic. Her back-to-back “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” in the last act conveyed an astounding fragility and transporting splendor.
But the real show-stealer was baritone Marco Vratogna in the role of Iago. Clad in black leather, Vratogna stalked the stage with a venomous attitude vocally and theatrically, as evidenced by the good-natured booing he received with a grin at curtain call. Vratogna delivered Iago’s infamous act 2 “Credo in un Dio crudel,” an aria in which he unrepentantly flaunts his reprobate ethics, with scintillating flair. His voice was brazen and strong with a husky edge that sliced through the line “I believe in a cruel God…life only food for the worms of death.”
In the title role, New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill left something to be desired. O’Neill’s best moment was when he cried out for peace and military glory in Otello’s 2nd act aria “Addio,” achieving that sweet yet full-bodied tone that is so hard to master in the upper range. More often, though, O’Neill seemed to be laboring. He sounded strained and acted tired. But his ensemble pieces—duets with Vratogna and Pérez, as well as a sublime quartet that also included mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood as Iago’s wife Emilia—showed O’Neill has the chops and the skills to be in the lead.
Visually, this production was purposeful and forward-looking. A huge spherical lantern swung wildly in the opening scene to evoke the raging ocean. The production used an off-kilter stage curved like a shallow bowl, suggesting both a tossing ship and a sense of tragic psychological confusion. It reminded me of the slanted stage of HGO’s 2013 production of Tristan and Isolde. Johan Engels, who created a stunning design for last season’s The Passenger, again demonstrated his talents by emphasizing a fading palette of red and white in the set and costumes. Michael James Clark did stunning work with the lighting, particularly during Pérez’s “Ave Maria” when the stage melted into a glow that gave Desdemona a halo. Cross-shaped scaffolding, flanked by a trinity of squares, underlined the opera’s Christian themes. The blocking, too, was a mark of director John Cox’s discerning taste—most memorably the curtain falling at the end of act 1 on Desdemona and Otello walking away slowing holding hands in ominous, fading light.
The cellos and double basses shined in this opera, evoking Otello’s troubled character as well as the darkness of the plot, and conductor Patrick Summers presided over the score with true cultivation. Delicate English horn and flute solos balanced out the lower rumblings with flowering grace. Summers brought out Verdi’s full range of emotions, bouncing lightly on his heels during a dance-like chorus number, and brandishing his fist in the air during darker arias.
With the exception of a few standout productions, particularly its exemplary Rheingold, HGO’s 2013-2014 season was hit-or-miss. With Otello, Verdi’s goal was to break with the past. Whether or not HGO shared Verdi’s goal, this modern production leaves last season in the dust.