An “Otello” That Cut to the Soul

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Anima (children’s chorus), Lyric Opera of Chicago, Bertrand de Billy (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 5.10.2013 (JLZ)

OTELLO Act3 (c) Dan Rest

Montano: Anthony Clark Evans
Cassio: Antonio Poli
Iago: Falk Struckmann (Act I); Todd Thomas (Acts II-IV)
Roderigo: John Irvin
Otello: Johan Botha
Desdemona: Ana Maria Martinez
Emilia: Julie Anne Miller
A Herald: Richard Ollarsaba
Lodovico: Evan Boyer
Conductor: Bertrand de Billy
Original Director: Sir Peter Hall
Revival Director: Ashley Dean
Set and Costume Designer: John Gunter
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Fight Director: Nick Sandys
Children’s Chorus Master: Emily Ellsworth
Choreographer: August Tye

To open Lyric Opera of Chicago’s season, everything came together in this outstanding presentation of Verdi’s Otello, masterfully led by Bertrand de Billy in his Lyric debut. The orchestral reading was particularly effective, including the offstage trumpets and the onstage band, as was the chorus when the curtain opened, with Verdi’s vocal timbres nicely nuanced and delivered. Like the choruses in Verdi’s early operas, this one established the dramatic situation within seconds. It is difficult to find fault with anything in this performance instead, revel in the details that emerged in this polished delivery of Verdi’s famous score.

The principals were all well matched and in good voice. At the end of the first act, Iago (sung by Falk Struckmann) has a duet with Otello that is as powerful as the tenor-baritone duets in Don Carlo, albeit with very different dramatic purpose. Unfortunately Struckmann withdrew after the first act because of allergies, but his understudy Todd Thomas continued, giving Iago consummate intensity and continuing Struckmann’s focus. Verdi’s powerful libretto captures the sense of disillusion implicit in Shakespeare’s text, and Thomas delivered it piercingly. The almost whispered “morta” near the end of the soliloquy probably cut to the soul of many in the audience.

As Otello, Johan Botha was impressive both musically and dramatically. His ringing tone and sense of line—delivered effortlessly—did Verdi’s concept proud. At the end of the first act, the love duet with Desdemona—sung by Ana Maria Martinez—was touching in its delicacy. Here, the text and music come together to make a fitting counterpart to the rough and pointed exchange between Otello and his wife at the end of Act III. Yet such a detail is found only in such a fine performance as this one. More than, that, the sense of dramatic timing emerged nicely in Botha’s characterization, as the audience could see the ways in which Otello gradually became obsessed with the loyalty of those close to him.

As Desdemona, Martinez was outstanding, executing the score’s details with stunning ease. She was captivating with Botha in their first-act duet and in the Act III confrontation, with her rich tone matching his very effectively. In the scena in the fourth act, Martinez’s preghiera (“Ave Maria”) was a vocal tour de force, combining range and keen dramatic sense. The famous “Willow Song” was flawless, further demonstrating how the singer’s sensitivity to line and text can breathe new life into an old friend. In the sustained pitches and soft, high notes Martinez brought finesse, and though technically accomplished, it never seemed calculated or contrived.

As Emilia, Julie Anne Miller gave the role full voice and convincing acting—especially in the second-act quartet, which is not always sung as well as it was here. Likewise, Cassio was made memorable by Antonio Poli, an Italian tenor who made his American debut in this performance, displaying a fluid voice, polished execution and excellent technique. The rest of cast did fine work, especially Evan Boyer, deploying a rich bass voice as Lodovico.

All in all, this performance opened the new season with style. As familiar as Otello may be, Bertrand de Billy’s command of the score brought out many crucial details. His sense of balance and timing combined to create an auspicious opening night.

James L. Zychowicz