United States Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (conductor), Houston, Texas. 26.10.2014 (AS)
Otello: Simon O’Neill
Desdemona: Ailyn Pérez
Iago: Marco Vratogna
Cassio: Norman Reinhardt
Emilia: Victoria Livengood
Lodovico: Morris Robinson
Roderigo: Kevin Ray
Montao: Peixin Chen
Director: John Cox
Sets/Costume designer: Johan Engels
Lighting designer: Michael James Clark
It’s hard to go wrong opening a season with Verdi’s Otello. Arguably the composer’s greatest work, the music and Boito’s text are hard to mess up, as long as the production provides powerful voices, believable drama and compelling theater. Unfortunately, Houston Grand Opera’s production lacked in all three departments, resulting in an Otello that fell flat, with one major exception.
You didn’t have to look far for the biggest problem of the night. New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill has forged a prominent career for himself, singing the most demanding heldentenor roles in almost all of the world’s major opera houses. And yet the clarion instrument that has earned him such high praise was almost non-existent in his portrayal of the doomed Moor. Vocally, the role seemed an awful fit for him. Otello’s “Esultate” should set the scene for what is to come, giving the audience a brief taste of the splendorous and resounding voice that will dominate Verdi’s seminal work; O’Neill’s had the opposite effect. Instead of strength and brilliance, the tenor barely squeezed out the words of the arioso—his voice totally lacking in squillo—and he ended up swallowed completely by the orchestra, led by Patrick Summers. As omens go, it was a bad one.
Things didn’t get much better. Instead of the swashbuckling sound for which O’Neill has been in such high demand, the audience sat through an awkward, strained, underwhelming title role. His acting could use some improvement as well: a limited set of stock gestures added to the disappointing vocal portrayal, turning Otello into more of a comedic figure than a dramatic one. Presumably this wasn’t the intent of Verdi, Boito, O’Neill, or director John Cox, for that matter.
Italian dramatic baritone Marco Vratogna fared slightly better as Iago, without really making an impression. In an era lacking in true Verdi baritones, Vratogna fits the bill vocally, boasting a voice with decent size and squillo if lacking occasionally in color. Among the rest of the supporting cast, the only high points were Morris Robinson’s booming bass in a cameo as Lodovico, and the bass Peixin Chen, an HGO regular, as Montano.
And yet, amidst the generally underwhelming tone of this production, there was indeed a diamond in the rough: soprano Ailyn Pérez as Desdemona. The Chicago native and Academy of Vocal Arts graduate has surely cemented herself as one of the best of the latest generation of stateside talents, yet this debut should see her career rise to a whole new level. She took command of the stage and captured the audience’s attention with a full, elegant lyric soprano over which she showed exquisite dynamics control. It’s usually not a good sign when Desdemona’s voice drowns out Otello’s, and yet there was a dignity in Perez’s interaction with her colleagues; at times she appeared to rein in her instrument to prevent upstaging the “true” star of the production. But it was practically impossible to focus on anyone else while she was on stage, especially during the Willow Song and “Ave Maria,” as she floated pianissimi and spun long legato lines with ease.
Director John Cox led the dramatic team in this co-production with, among others, Los Angeles Opera and the Teatro Regio di Parma. While the Johan Engels’s mostly traditional sets and costumes did not distract from the action, the drama unfolded without any tension whatsoever. One could forgive Cox for this, considering the limited acting prowess of most of the cast. Yet in 2014, one would hope that an opera director would at least be able to rid his singers of uninteresting gestures, static poses, and over-the-top outbursts that garnered not a few unintended laughs.
Perhaps Houston Grand Opera has spoiled its patrons over the last few years, with wildly successful productions of Wagner, Britten, and Verdi that have further cemented the company’s reputation as one of the biggest players in the opera world today. But by its own standards (and by those of the audience it has so dutifully created), this Otello falls well short. In Ailyn Pérez, however, HGO has brought a star to its stage. The company would be very wise to bring her back early and often.