A Rare Opportunity to Hear Otello in the Verdi Bi-Centenary Year

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Midsummer Opera, the Blackheath Choir, David Roblou (Conductor), John Upperton (Chorus Master) St. John’s Church, Waterloo, London 18.10.2013. (MH)


Otello1 (1)
Pic credit Midsummer Opera/ElyRose Promotions

Otello: John Upperton
Desdemona: Lorraine Ely
Iago: Andrew Mayor
Cassio: James Scarlett
Montano: Cheyney Kent
Roderigo: Stephen Cviic
Emilia: Lynne McAdam
Lodovico: John Milne
Herald: Christopher Hollis
Cypriot Fishermen: Tony Brewer, Sheridan Edward, Christopher Hollis


Conductor and Artistic Director: David Roblou
Stage Director: John Upperton
Stage Manager: Luke Upperton

In this Verdi Bi-Centenary year, Midsummer Opera’s performances of Otello in October 2013 have been the only opportunity for London audiences to experience this opera, surely one of Verdi’s greatest works. MSO performances were semi-staged, sung in Italian with original text by Arrigo Boito.

Despite the name, Midsummer Opera performs in all four seasons, presenting baroque, classic, romantic and modern works. Since 2007 its regular London performance venue has been St. John’s Church, Waterloo.

The building  is a Greek Revival Church built between 1882 and 1884 to the designs of the architect Francis Bedford. After bomb damage during the war it was restored by Thomas Ford in 1950 to present a spacious, acoustically cavernous interior. Fortunately comfortable seats now enhance any performance for the audience.

Verdi was not the only Italian composer to use the Shakespeare play as his inspiration for an opera. A seldom seen or heard version  by Rossini was written in 1816. The Verdi version of the story was first performed on 5 February 1887 at La Scala, Milan. Interestingly, the MSO programme notes remind the audience that “at La Scala there was no orchestra pit – the orchestra was at floor level …….and frequently overpowered the singers with its huge orchestral textures”.

The staging in St. John’s was simple but functional – a small rostrum stage right and associated treads, in front of the orchestra with the chorus behind. This offered a good view from all seats in the house, which were fully occupied.The action in the narrow performance area was effective, creating interesting levels and tableaux for the large ensemble numbers and enabling convincing story telling. Entrances from different areas of the Church also gave some suggestion of distance and location. Properties were minimal, though sometimes used with abandon. For example, if the pitchers or tankards had contained liquid both orchestra and audience would have been soaked. Costume was  again minimal, but presented a clear delineation for each character and overall the simplified production style was most effective.

Among the cast who worked so hard during the four acts was John Upperton who must be commended on his performance in the title role as Otello – a role feared by many a great voice of the past including Pavarotti, and made memorable by such greats as del Monaco, Vickers and McCracken. Perhaps Placido Domingo is the best known Otello in recent years.

From his first appearance Upperton gave his all and sang with clear ringing tone.  However, this was sadly not always enough to ride the 71 piece orchestra. This is partly the reason why the role is feared as the orchestration at times is so lush and in this performance was so close  to the performer.

Most touching was the Act 1 Love duet “Gia nella notte…..” with  Desdemona sung by Lorraine Ely. The sensitivity and subtle expression of both characters were well controlled. There was a fine finale with Iago to Act 2, but perhaps the most emotional singing was the “Niun mi tema” before his last words to Desdemona and final demise.

Iago sung by Andrew Mayor, dressed in snappy waistcoat made a rather oily character, not overemphasising the evil hidden beneath such a smart exterior. His description of Cassio’s dream to Otello “Era la notte…” followed by the revelation about Desdemona’s handkerchief brought a vibrant end to Act 2 culminating in the oath with Otello “Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro” – which was spine chilling.

The role of Desdemona was taken by Lorraine Ely in one of her first lirico spinto roles. Her acting was particularly effective in the simple setting and with her Otello, the love duet in Act 1 was most believable. In Act 3 when Desdemona pleads for Cassio’s restoration to office, her delivery of “Esterrefata fisso” was extremely effective and touchingly sung.  Here was a performance with real understanding.

The minor roles were also take by accomplished performers.The Cassio of James Scarlett sparkled with lyrical voice. His characterisation was quite light, but he came over successfully as a naïve, youthful Lieutenant. Stage fights are always difficult to make convincing, but Scarlett was suitably agile despite a bendy plastic knife – due to Health and Safety legislation, I assume.

The other tenor role of Roderigo, sung by Stephen Cviic, also added his clear tones to the lively action of Act 1.  His voice gave good balance and weight to the other scenes when he appeared. For each tenor, the competition with the brass, particularly the horns in the orchestra, was a slight problem, especially when engaged in  some of the necessarily boisterous staging.

Montano sung by  Cheyney Kent  added his warm bass tones to the Act 1 scene with Cassio and was believable as an innocent doing his duty being drawn into the drama. Riding the orchestra with clarity and gravitas was the Venetian Ambassador sung by bass John Milne. Declamatory and effective in delivery he was able to impress with this cameo role. Lynne McAdam as Iago’s wife was suitably sympathetic in her dealings with Desdemona and a good foil for Desdemona’s emotional “Emilia, addio”  adding to the drama of the final scene. The three fishermen, taken from the chorus, sang their trio section with fine diction and projection.

The Chorus combining the Blackheath choir and Midsummer Opera chorus totalled 69 on the night.  The Chorus master (John Upperton) and the Musical Director of Blackheath Choir (Patricia Williams) are to be commended on the drilling of their troops. They were excellent in the opening storm sequence. A rousing solid tone helped to create the atmosphere and set the scene to which the principals downstage were able to react. It is very difficult to react to raging seas and gale force winds when there aren’t any, except in the orchestra!

The whole piece was under the experienced baton of David Roblou conducting the Symphony Orchestra of Midsummer Opera, an ensemble of 71 musicians who were on fine form.  The opening chords  leading into the storm music certainly stirred the audience. Sadly there were times when the singers were overpowered by such a large ensemble and perhaps more sympathetic accompaniment would have been desirable.  The generous acoustic of the building was doubtless partly to blame.   Clearly Roblou was in control of his troops and the playing was excellent, except for some minor double bass tuning issues at the start of Act 4. Overall it was wonderful to see and hear such a grand orchestra.

The packed audience at St. John’s obviously enjoyed this performance of Verdi’s Otello. There were many friends and family of orchestra members and chorus present and it was a delight to hear their rapturous response. Also a great opportunity for many who would not normally perform in such a large scale opera. Long may MSO thrive and continue to give such pleasure.

Martyn Harrison