Well-staged 'Otello' features excellent cast, fine singing

November 13, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The Washington Opera's new staging of Verdi's "Otello" looks great and -- for the most part -- sounds that way, too.

Zack Brown, who designed and costumed this production -- which continues in repertory until Nov. 28 -- is an artist who has a gift for expressing the monumental and doing it with such taste that it enhances, rather than deflects attention from, the music. His scenery and costumes create a version of the Italian renaissance that steps right out of the frames of pictures by Italian old masters.

Sonja Frisell directs her singing actors with equal skill. One of the hardest things to do in this opera is to occupy the singer who portrays Otello in the voiceless minutes of music between the time he enters the sleeping Desdemona's chamber and the moment she wakes. The natural and purposeful way in which Ermanno Mauro's Otello paced about heightened the musical and dramatic tension and bespoke a well-directed actor. This dramatically faultless production also featured one of the most spectacular sword fights (staged by fight instructor Brad Waller) I have ever seen in either an opera or play.

The cast is about as strong as anyone is likely to hear these days. However, Mauro does not have a voice that is powerful enough for the title role. That hurt certain parts of the opera -- the love music at the end of Act I, in which his voice could not compete with that of Stefka Evstatieva's generously proportioned soprano; the "Ora e per sempre," the farewell to arms, in which the tenor simply could not summon the force to create the necessary pathos; and the demonic marriage between Otello and Iago at the end of Act II, in which Mauro's voice was dwarfed by that of Tom Fox. But Mauro is a fairly skillful actor, has a beautiful voice and never resorted to shouting.

The rest of the cast was extraordinary. Fox may be the finest Iago since Sherill Milnes was in his prime. He's a singer who made one's hair stand on end during Iago's "Credo" and he's the kind of actor who doesn't even have to open his mouth to seize one's attention. As Desdemona, Evstatieva's sensitive singing was large in scope and supple in tone, reaching one climax in a piercingly sad account of the willow song and then topping that with a preternaturally soft and controlled one of the "Ave Maria." The Washington Opera chorus gave a splendid account of itself as did the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under the direction of Stefan Soltesz.

'Otello'

When: 2 p.m. Nov. 15, 8 p.m., Nov. 17 and 20, 7 p.m. Nov. 23 and Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington.

Cost: $80, orchestra; $135, box.

Ticket information: (202) 416-7800 or (800) 87-OPERA.

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