Ian Storey as Otello, Mark Delavan as Iago; Los Angeles Opera photo by Robert Millard.
Los Angeles Opera's new production of Verdi's Otello has drawn responses ranging from lukewarm to actively hostile. Mark Swed's view of opening night for the Los Angeles Times was decidedly mixed:
For all the company had accomplished by producing its first Otello out of nothing [21 years ago], the orchestra and chorus back then could hardly approach the sheer visceral power of this opening chorus, one of the most dramatic in all opera. Swept away by it all, I was ready to believe we had entered a new era. Then I opened my eyes. And, shortly thereafter, my ears.
Health problems meant the company was obliged to trot out a substitute Desdemona for the opening. When the intended lead returned, so did Swed, and felt an eensy bit better about it though his praise was still faint:
There is still lots wrong, even embarrassing, with this Otello, but thanks to [Chilean soprano Cristina]Gallardo-Domâs it is no longer a disaster.
Elsewhere, Christian Chensvold complained of "the combination of a beauty-deprived score by Verdi, unexciting production values, and an emotionless portrayal of the tragic hero by Ian Storey . . ." (He had more positive things to say in that same post about the concurrent "Recovered Voices" double bill, on which I will be better able to report after I see it next Saturday.)
I caught up with Otello last night and, really, it is not nearly so bad as all that. In fact, its virtues, which are largely musical, overcome its most glaring weaknesses, which are largely scenic.
Where lies the scene? Cyprus, ostensibly -- Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito dropped Shakespeare's Act 1 altogether, so we never get to spend any time in Venice -- but a Cyprus that is oddly, and literally, off kilter. Designer Johan Engels has devised a strange and troublesome curved and canted stage floor with a pair of large boxy tunnels for entrances and exits at right and left. The inspiration seems to be a ship's keel, drawing on Otello's storm-wracked arrival by sea as the opera opens, but the sandy color scheme and the Cypriots' desert-ready apparel combine with the arc of the floor and an odd blue neon rear wall (representing the sun-sparked Mediterranean, perhaps?) to produce the impression that Otello has been dispatched by the Doge to oversee an abandoned skateboard park on Tatooine. Alan Rich declared it "an authentic visual plague" and I suspect it may account singlehandedly for an increase in the company's workers' compensation premiums as singers and choristers struggle to get through the run without falling over.
The star of the evening is the orchestra and music director James Conlon, delivering an account of Verdi's score that is stirring and propulsive but also remarkable for transparency of tone and attention to detail. That means, as I suspect Maestro Conlon might protest, that the star was actually Giuseppe Verdi, whose score does just about all that can be done while still being an Italian opera. The thunderous bits were properly thunderous, but the quiet beauties of the Act 1 love duet and the achingly sad pre-murder meditations in Act 4 were most memorable.
Among the singing performers, this production belongs solidly to Mark Delavan's Iago, an utterly unapologetic and gleeful villain. Boito provided Iago with an explanatory speech denied him by Shakespeare: Iago is a proto-Nietzschean nihilist who ruins lives because he can and because "death is the end and Heaven is a lie." And while he is going about his nefarious business, he has a darned good time, thank you very much.
Desdemona is a smaller, more reactive role, but I am hard put to imagine how Cristina Gallardo-Domâs' performance of it could be improved upon. I am generally reluctant to go mooning about over sopranos, but it is tempting to make an exception in this case. Ms. Gallardo-Domâs sang Cio-Cio San in the Met's new production of Madama Butterfly earlier this year. Although I am on record with the view that seeing Butterfly once in one lifetime is entirely sufficient, I would make an exception if she were to venture that role here.
And what of Ian Storey's Otello? Frequently more than adequate, but not dominant in the greater scheme of things, perhaps because of the strengths of Iago and Desdemona. Otellos in general are so easily played upon by Iago that the character always risks coming off as something of a dupe, and for much of the evening Storey fell prey to that risk. It must be said that he finished well, however, and that this Moor's last sigh when all became clear was moving and effective.
Last night's performance was in competition with the Academy Awards -- which, before the advent of the Kodak Theater, were frequently distributed in the very Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where we sat. Oscar did not seem to have diminished the audience by much, and I was pleased to note that the average age of the attendees appeared to skew rather younger than is usual for opera. Statistical fluke or hopeful sign? Only time will tell.
Of Related Interest:
Out West Arts has not written up Otello yet, but did spend time with James Conlon over the weekend as the Maestro did double or triple duty by conducting not only the Opera orchestra but the Los Angeles Philharmonic as well. This very positive post -- "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" -- does a good job of highlighting just how important Conlon has become to this burg:
The really unexpected part is this – in this town that Salonen built where anxiety is widespread over his pending departure despite all the big promises of a Dudamel-filled future, Conlon has stepped in and quietly become the next major driving force in the musical life of this community. In less than two years he has developed a beloved following from both local audiences and (I’m told) the musicians playing under his leadership. He has laid out an agenda that he has so far delivered on with fairly good results across the board programming both more Wagner and overlooked German repertory for LAO. He is truly excited about what he is doing and is eager to share it with audiences here personally. For example, he’s been doing most of the pre-opera talks of the projects he’s involved with himself and he’s as likely as not to make comments from the stage before his Philharmonic appearances. . . . He attacks everything with gusto and I for one am thrilled about what he’s done so far. We are lucky to have Conlon here right now.
The list of folks who are thrilled with what Maestro Conlon is up to is a long one, and you can count me in on it. For all that he is obliged by management and market forces to pile on the Standard Repertoire each year, he has a demonstrated interest in obscured/less frequently mounted works. Now, will someone please take his hints -- I've heard him drop them in it least two of his pre-performance talks now -- and let the man conduct a production of Pelleas & Melisande around here? Please?