Rossini’s dramatic opera Otello makes its long overdue Australian premiere thanks to the vision and drive of Melbourne Opera, a company exhibiting an increasingly strong flair for bel canto opera.
Surprisingly, this 1816 opera is not based on Shakespeare’s Othello; Rossini and librettist Francesco Berio Di Salsa are said to have been unaware of Shakespeare’s play. Set in Venice, Otello hinges upon a love letter from Desdemona to Otello, intercepted by her father, Elmiro, and held by Iago. Spurned by Desdemona, Rodrigo joins Iago and Elmiro in his hatred of Otello, the misunderstanding over the letter leading to the same tragic outcome as the play and the Verdi opera.
Director Bruce Beresford seizes upon the well-drawn characters of the opera, colouring the music with clear dramatic action. Otello famously requires five tenors, and Melbourne Opera has not only found these singers but has been able to cast them as solid actors as well, each suiting their role to strong effect.
Conducted by Greg Hocking, the Melbourne Opera Orchestra made a somewhat shaky start in the overture, but soon found their stride as the opera proceeded. The melodies may be largely unfamiliar, but Rossini’s style shines through, allowing musicians and audience members alike to appreciate the music. As well as some fine playing from the brass, a highlight of the music is the gorgeous harp solo (by Samantha Ramirez) before Desdemona’s famous “Willow Song.”
Breaking with tradition, Melbourne Opera uses surtitles for Otello. While English diction remains pleasingly clear, surtitles aid clarity at times of overlapping lyrics; they do, however, draw attention to the repetitive nature of the text. Geoffrey Harris’ new translation paints a vivid picture of the pursuit of revenge but falls short of elegance in its attempted use of rhyming couplets.
Beresford keeps the stakes high, but momentum tends to be challenged by the repetition in the lyrics. The music is beautiful, but the storyline is rather thin for the 210 minute running time (including two intervals). Interest rises during a sword fight between Otello and Rodrigo, and the final act is a beautifully calibrated balance of gorgeous music and stirring action.
Featuring a glossy black floor and luxurious-looking black marble pillars, Greg Carroll’s scenic design provides an air of spectacle. For the third scene, described in the synopsis as “a splendid hall,” tall side panels featuring enlarged segments of classic paintings are used to striking effect. Rear projections, by Liliana Braumberger, add a clear sense of 15th century Venice. Braumberger’s sunset and night sky add portent and beauty to act three.
Rhiannon Irving has contributed handsome costumes, successfully achieving a characterful period look and avoiding unnecessary gloss. The focus of much passion, Desdemona sports a blood red satin gown in act one before switching to a regal dark blue in act two.
Lighting designer John Collopy allows the projected images to be seen in crisp clarity, and achieves a warm candlelit glow for many of the scenes. The climactic lightning effect adds to the excitement of the tragic final sequence.
On opening night, tenor Stephen Smith’s high notes were strained in his opening scene. Far more confident upon his next and subsequent entries, Smith went on give a smouldering portrayal of a man near crazed with jealousy.
Skulking about like Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger, Henry Choo is in excellent voice as the self-serving Iago. Choo plays Iago’s wickedness openly, portraying a man who derives malevolent glee in the full-blooded pursuit of revenge.
Possessing a pure and thrilling tenor voice, Boyd Owen sings Rodrigo with great flair. With vocals this appealing, Owen brings a sense of nobility to Rodrigo, which serves to muddy the central love triangle so that there is no clear villain.
Bel canto soprano Elena Xanthoudakis returns to grace the Melbourne Opera stage, balancing passion and vulnerability in a fascinating performance as Desdemona. Required to perform in an extended state of agitated tension, Xanthoudakis maintains lovely vocal stability, with wonderful ornamentals throughout. “The Willow Song” is a truly lovely highlight, bringing the opera towards a moving close.
Dimity Shepherd is luxury casting as Desdemona’s close friend Emilia, bringing a warm, compassionate tone to the role. A renowned interpreter of modern opera, it is a pleasure to see Shepherd ply her craft in purely classical style. Some of Emilia’s lyrics are a little melodramatic, but Shepherd’s commitment to the role maintains a serious atmosphere.
While the Chorus is not given a huge amount of work in Otello, their harmonies and volume are reliably strong. A particular highlight comes near the end of act one, with the full company singing the sort of rousing, layered climax that is a specialty of Rossini.
Another blessing for opera lovers of Melbourne, the season of Otello brings plenty to enjoy.
Otello plays selected dates at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 27 October 2018.
Photos: Robin Halls