A Storming Otello from Opera North

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, Richard Farnes (Conductor), Grand Theatre,  Leeds, 16.1.2013 (JL)


Otello: Ronald Samm
Desdemona: Elena Kelessidi
Iago: David Kempster
Cassio: Michael Wade Lee
Emilia: Ann Taylor
Roderigo: Christopher Turner
Lodovico: Henry Waddington
Montano: Dean Robinson
Herald: Paul Gibson


Director: Tim Albery
Set and Costume Designer: Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer: Thomas C Hase
Choreographer: Laila Diallo

Thanks to Arrigo Boito’s brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, we get in Verdi’s Otello perhaps the greatest entrance in all opera. Orchestra and Chorus launch a thunderous sea storm from which the audience can almost feel the windy blast. Otello’s ship manages to gain land and the victorious general strides ashore to announce to the anxious assembled throng his naval victory over the Turks: “Esultate!”.

In the play, Othello does not appear until the second scene in a low key conversational context. Some have heretically dared to suggest – perish the thought – that Boito makes some dramatic improvements on the play. Be that as it may, it is tempting to see Ronald Samm’s entrance in the title role of this new production as a metaphor for a relatively new Otello arriving on to the world opera stage.

Samm has played the role twice before. I saw neither but he is clearly honing the performance into a class act. The voice may not reach the sublimities of Placido Domingo who has dominated the role for a couple of generations, but the portrayal is one of authority, power and emotional conviction. The fact that he is the first black man to sing the part in Britain is not just a conversational point but for some will add verisimilitude to the miscegenation issues raised by Shakespeare.

No staging of this supreme opera can be carried by the lead singer alone and the new production has two notable strengths. Tim Albery, for many years one of Britain’s finest opera directors, and Richard Farnes, the company’s music director constitute a dream team. In Ronald Samm’s words in a BBC radio interview, they are “an exceptional duo”. Second, tenor Samm’s Otello and baritone David Kempster’s Iago make for a well matched double act during which they chart the course of a complex relationship with powerful psychological insights. According to the singers, hours were spent with Tim Albery singing and talking through all the details of the personality facets of their respective characters and the interaction between them.

The sets and staging allow for the intertwining relationships of the characters to unfold without distraction as the narrative proceeds to its inevitable, tragic dénouement. Things did not seem promising at first. As I entered the auditorium the curtain was already raised on a large battleship grey space that looked like a cross between an underground car park and a works canteen. Two Mrs Mops were cleaning the floor as the audience filed in, read their programmes and chatted. A man in naval uniform wandered on to the stage and the auditorium fell silent. (Had the show begun?). He ascended onto a railed walkway at the rear of the set and began to throw three huge, junction box switches, each one dousing some lights. On the third the orchestra crashed in to carry us in imagination to the stormy Cypriot shore, people rushing in and looking out to sea in the direction of the audience. Most of the men were in naval uniforms, the women in blouses, long skirts, raincoats and headscarves that looked to be from the 1940s. The combined forces of the excellent Orchestra of Opera North and their 50/60 strong chorus delivered awesome power and drew the focus from set to drama and music.

Otello’s entrance was on the elevated gangway and the arresting “Esultate” was delivered by Ronald Samm in a way that confirmed he was going to manage the more strenuous demands of the part. There are not many singers who can cope with the all-round requirements of this most challenging of roles. The demands include the delivery of restrained lyrical lines through to soaring heldentenor climaxes, the acting out of the part of a commanding, confident General who deteriorates into a psychological wreck, and performing love scenes of the uttermost tenderness. Ronald Samm has what it takes aided by a large, room-dominating physique.

David Kempster is an accomplished Verdi baritone who has power as well as a range of vocal colour. Some people might like their Iago to exude more menace. Indeed I overheard at the interval someone expressing this. Yet it could be argued that such an approach would make Iago’s talent for persuading people to trust him less convincing. Kempster clearly believed this and I think it worked (apart from in the famous creed where he has no option!). As Cassio, one of the men he dupes, Michael Wade Lee has a pleasing tenor voice and acted his drunken scene with conviction.

Desdemona, played by Elena Kelessidi from Kasakhstan is an experienced opera soprano who, having played Violetta at Covent Garden, knows how to sing her way to a Verdian heroine’s tragic end. I confess that I never quite got used to the fact that she was dressed as if about to appear in one of those 1950s adverts where a semi-permed, immaculately dressed brunette housewife who never wears an apron promotes some gadget in a kitchen setting. The voice is perhaps a little hard-edged for the more lyrically floating melodic lines of the part although she had a fine high note pianissimo and came into her own dramatically in the final scene with Otello.

By the time of that final scene it was clear that this was a production that had the intention to try and drill into the heart of the characters and in doing so had kept sets simple enough to avoid diversion. Act 2 consisted of a single tree with wooden panels at the sides evoking a Japanese simplicity. The final act was little more than a bed.

The whole show was underpinned by playing of distinction from the orchestra which realised every nuance of Verdi’s glowing score, from the hushed, moving lines for cello up to the blasting climaxes with their virtuoso trumpeting. Opera North’s music director Richard Farnes conducted with faultless judgment.

John Leeman