No spoiler alerts necessary here. Even if you did not study Shakespeare’s Othello in high school, certainly you have picked up a whiff of the ending somewhere else. Hint, it does not end well for Otello or anyone else. Verdi wastes no time on an overture introducing us to themes to come. The curtain rises. James Conlon’s baton is at the ready. The full chorus of Cypriots lifted by the magnificent LA Opera orchestra holds forth in celebration of Otello’s victory over the Ottoman Turks and a raging sea. It is a rousing opening to a magnificent three hours of music. Otello and his men have defeated the Ottomans; Cyprus remains in the domain of the Venetians.
Unfortunately Russell Thomas never inhabits the conquering hero part of Otello’s persona. His lovely tenor lacks the strength of the rest of the cast. Otello leaves the celebration of his safe and victorious return to be with his wife, Desdemona (Rachel Willis-Sørensen). Whatever is lacking in Russell’s performance is more than made up for by the strength of Willis-Sørensen’s Desdemona. She fills the Chandler with her glorious soprano. Sørensen is every bit the woman a sailor might dream of coming home to. Otello is not the only one with dreams of Desdemona. His jealousy is easily aroused, making him easy fodder for palace intrigue. Iago (Igor Golovatenko), Otello’s ensign, is the man for the job. He bears a grudge against Cassio (Anthony Ciaramitaro) whom Otello has promoted over Iago. Iago conjures up a plot to take advantage of the hero’s jealousy and his own envy to cast ill favor upon Cassio. Get the drift? Iago is the guy audiences love to hate; Golovatenko splendidly inhabits the character. He seems made for intrigue. At the opening night’s curtain call Golovatenko is rewarded with enthusiastic boos, cheers, and applause. It has been suggested that this production might well be entitled Iago instead of Otello.
There are no arias, per se, in Otello. Los Angeles opera audiences generally applaud at any pause, interfering with continuity and depleting the value of the reward. Verdi’s construction creates a seamless experience supporting the theatrical experience as well as the voices. What does not support the theatrical experience in this production is the stage design. The large cast of townsfolk is supposedly assembled on the quay awaiting the conquering hero, but low and behold the Chandler stage resembles nothing so much as the interior of the hull of a very large vessel. Were that the design of a real-world quay, one huge wave would swamp the poor townsfolk and probably flood any development close to the shore. In more intimate and interior scenes it really looks ridiculous. The cast must trudge up a steep slope making it nearly impossible, for example, to storm out of a room convincingly. It is an unnecessary challenge for the cast and a distraction for the audience.
Iago brews up his evil potion. He promotes Cassio’s inebriation, sets him against Roderigo (Anthony León) who truly does have a crush on Desdemona, and Cassio wounds a fellow officer upsetting Otello who, in turn, then demotes Cassio. Is Iago finished? Oh no. For him there is still work to be done. There is still Otello’s jealousy to be exploited. I won’t go into the details, but it hinges upon a handkerchief Otello had given to Desdemona. Iago has managed to have it planted on Cassio. The fuss over the handkerchief sounds a bit silly to 21st century ears, but the music is gorgeous. Otello sees Desdemona comforting Cassio for the mess of the drunken brawl. He sees it as proof of the seed of distrust Iago has planted.
Desdemona is devastated as she sees her marriage fall apart. Iago’s wife Emilia (Sarah Saturnino) is Desdemona’s confidant and lady’s maid. She comforts Desdemona and realizes she has been used by her husband in the planting of the handkerchief causing so much to unravel. Though her part is relatively small, Saturnino, in her main stage debut, delivers a magnificent performance. You can look forward to seeing her next season in both The Barber of Seville and La Traviata.
Farce turns to tragedy as Otello kills Desdemona as well as himself realizing Iago’s duplicity. It is a twisted tale. Despite a less than stellar Otello, despite a ridiculous set design, the three hours pass quickly buoyed up by a near flawless LA Opera orchestra, and multiple fine performances.