Some hits, some misses in staging

Review: Baltimore Opera's `Otello' dilutes some of Verdi's high drama.

March 18, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If anyone could translate Shakespeare into opera, it had to be Giuseppe Verdi. He was a true man of the theater, ahead of his time - and certainly most of his contemporaries - in so many respects. His creed was simple: "The public will stand for anything except boredom." And he knew the value of plot, language, character development, motivation, timing.

As a septuagenarian who hadn't written an opera in 16 years (that was Aida), Verdi would have been forgiven had he faltered in his operatic treatment of Othello. But, if anything, this old master was even more inspired when he took on the project. As Baltimore Opera Company is currently demonstrating to reasonably strong effect, Otello turned out to be every bit the equal of Shakespeare's original.

From the opening storm scene, as electrifying a curtain-raiser as can be found in all of opera, to that wrenching progression of pathos and tragedy in the finale, not a note goes wrong. Whatever was lost in the way of words or detail during the transformation from play to opera, was more than gained in terms of musical truth, drama and beauty.

To unleash those qualities requires an awful lot of resources. The vocal demands on a tenor in the title role are, in their own way, as tough as those for any Wagnerian assignment. It isn't much easier for the soprano who undertakes Desdemona. And Iago is no cinch, either, requiring a baritone with as much brains as brawn.

A big, beefy-toned chorus is essential, too. So is a top-notch conductor and orchestra. The staging calls for considerable imagination in terms of scenic design and directorial insight.

One reason that Otello does not enjoy as much popularity with the general public as, say, La traviata, may well be that people just don't often get to experience a performance that can successfully fulfill all of those essentials. These days, a mixed bag onstage is pretty much the norm. And so it was at the Lyric Opera House Saturday evening as Baltimore Opera unveiled its new production.

Jon Fredric West did valiant work as Otello. He delivered the opening Esultate in firm, ringing tones and made some subtle expressive points during the love duet. His low register disappeared early on, however, and much of his singing was more about getting out the notes (not always on pitch) than interpreting them.

West's acting also could have used greater finesse. There were a few hand-on-head gestures too many, and his death scene suggested a man getting into a comfortable position for a nap.

As Desdemona, Aprile Millo had to contend with an abundant blond wig that made her look at times like Bette Midler impersonating Mae West. But she gave the character a telling combination of innocence and strength, and filled the theater with her ample, warm voice, paying keen attention to the shape of Verdi's melodic lines.

For all of the lovely sounds, though, there was a rather monochromatic quality to the singing; dynamics tended to remain constant all night. This kept the Willow Song and Ave Maria in Act 4 a little shy of poignancy and ravishing tonal shading (though her noisy fans were clearly satisfied).

Alexandru Agache brought a large, dry voice and generally stiff movements to the role of Iago. He put across the Credo with sufficient force, but did more vivid singing as he subtly related Cassio's dream to Otello. Taylor Hargrave revealed a promising tenor and smooth acting skills as Cassio. Ryu-Kyung Kim was the sympathetic, if strident, Emilia. The chorus encountered a few coordination slips, but mostly sang sturdily and stirringly.

Christian Badea's conducting had plenty of fire and lyricism; his sure hand gave the performance a solid anchor. Other than an unreliable cello section, the orchestra acquitted itself ably.

Allen Charles Klein has created a huge, clunky-looking set with stark, unchanging walls that loom in the background and force most of the action into a narrow space downstage. It's all very imposing, without being very impressive. The costumes are certainly elegant, but I kept thinking they had a distinctly Spanish accent (Otello's guards would make great conquistadors), as if they were really meant for another Verdi opera, Don Carlos.

Director Beppe de Tomasi directs traffic efficiently, without few compelling touches. The choral scenes look awfully stiff; when the bodies move for repositioning, it means lots of steps gingerly navigated. The bit of dancing over in a cramped corner in Act 1 has a tired appearance; the mock sword-fighting in Act 3 between Iago and Cassio, timed to a recurring phrase in the orchestra, wears thin.

But much of the last scene makes a strong visual and theatrical statement (Donald Edmund Thomas' lighting is at its most atmospheric here), driving home the plight of a man whose enormous physical strength is no match for the "snaky coils" of that "hydra" called suspicion.

Baltimore Opera

What: Verdi's Otello

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8:15 p.m. Friday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: $37 to $130

Call: 410-727-6000

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