Friday Night: Verdi's Otello at War Memorial Opera House

Categories: Arts, Last Night
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Terrence McCarthy
Verdi's Otello
War Memorial Opera House

Friday, Nov. 13, 2009

Better than: Most professional athletes' returns from retirement

Local opera fans may not realize it, but they owe a debt of gratitude to Giulio Ricordi and Arrigo Boito. Without the machinations of these two -- a music publisher, and a composer and librettist -- Giuseppe Verdi may well have ended his career as a composer of operas after 1871's Aida, and consequently his Otello never would have premiered 16 years later. And, of course, we would not have the chance to enjoy the excellent production currently being staged by the San Francisco Opera, which capably handles nearly every aspect of what is often considered Verdi's greatest and most complex work.

Otello the opera is, obviously, based on Othello the Shakespeare play, and it was in part the opportunity to work with such compelling dramatic material that coaxed Verdi out of his self-imposed early retirement. Though librettist Boito considerably condensed the play, doing away with all of the first act and cutting out several characters and other scenes, what remains is hardly lacking in action -- the essence of the tale of the titular Moorish warrior; his faithful yet unfairly accused wife, Desdemona; and Iago, the congenitally evil presence who schemes to ruin the pair.

South African tenor Johan Botha, widely recognized as one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of the role, makes his SF Opera debut as Otello, and he is as good as promised. He effortlessly commands attention whenever he is on the stage, and his vocal performance is magnificent -- as capable of bellowing forth with rage and vengeance as of executing softer, more nuanced moments. To my mind, his was the finest performance by a male lead in an opera season that, more often than not, was dominated by female stars.  

Italian baritone Marco Vratonga is no slouch as Iago, though, in a largely understated yet effective performance that reaches a chilling peak with his declamation of his misanthropic worldview in "Credo in un Dio crudel" ("I believe in a cruel God"). It is interesting to watch as he insinuates his way into the mind of Otello -- he and Botha gradually develop a sort of chemistry that more commonly occurs between the lead male and female characters. This twisted connection is visually and musically affirmed before the curtain at the end of Act II, when the two deliver a powerful version of "Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro" ("Yes, by the marble heavens I swear"), vowing revenge on the innocent Desdemona and clasping their hands upward in a salute to Iago's cruel God.

Zvetelina Vassileva's Desdemona was not quite up to the level of Botha's and Vratonga's performances -- especially in the first two acts, the Bulgarian soprano seemed to have problems with pitch, but improved greatly by the time of the final (and fatal) scene in Desdemona's bedchamber. In supporting roles, mezzo-soprano Renée Tatum continues her busy season on the SF Opera stage (she has also appeared in Il Trovatore, Il Trittico, and Salomé) with a solid turn as Iago's wife, Emilia, and tenor Beau Gibson sings an appealing Cassio, the object of Desdemona's fabricated affections.

A revival of a Lyric Opera of Chicago production, this staging features a three-sided, multi-level set with doors and windows covered in Venetian blinds (for those who appreciate such in-jokes) that is serviceable enough for the characters' various comings, goings, and acts of spying, but is really neither here nor there. Until, that is, it's draped in white and outfitted with a soaring canopy to depict Desdemona's bedchamber in the final act. This calls to mind not only the obvious (purity), but also abstractly suggests through the way the eye is drawn upward a liminal space between earth and heaven.

Musical director Nicola Luisotti wraps up his first fall season in that capacity at SF Opera as he had begun it -- by leading the orchestra through a sure-handed reading of a Verdi score. After a rather uneven rendering of Salomé, in which the orchestra and singers seemed at times to be competing for attention (with the orchestra usually winning out), Luisotti definitely seemed to be back in his element. Given that one of general director David Gockley's goals for this season was to "reinvigorate the core Italian repertory," as he put it in his program message, this Otello is a fitting note on which to conclude the fall.

By the way: Sung in Italian, with English supertitles. Remaining performances are Nov. 17, 21, 25, 29, and Dec. 2. Visit www.sfopera.com for more information.

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