Pulliam and Maltman make star turns in Cleveland in Welser-Möst’s breathtakingly focused Otello

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Otello (concert version): Soloists, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Children’s Chorus, Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall, Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 21.5.2022. (MSJ)

Christopher Maltman (Iago), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Emilia), Tamara Wilson (Desdemona), Limmie Pulliam (Otello), Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most © Roger Mastroianni 

Otello – Limmie Pulliam
Iago – Christopher Maltman
Desdemona – Tamara Wilson
Cassio – Pene Pati
Roderigo – Owen McCausland
Emilia – Jennifer Johnson Cano
Lodovico – Raymond Aceto
Montano / The Herald – Kidon Choi

In recent years, the Cleveland Orchestra has taken to closing its season with a festival organized around a theme, with an opera typically featured as part of the bill. The opera performances – sometimes in semi-staged format, sometimes in concert – have given this already superb orchestra a chance to grow in different ways with the challenges of theatrical repertory. Their presentation of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen in 2016 was a triumph of musical artistry and creative staging including animation, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2017 featured innovative staging of live performers joined with impressive playing.

This season’s opera, Verdi’s Otello, was presented in concert, yet one needn’t think of singers standing around with scores in hand. As in the 2018 presentation of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, a jutting upstage platform served as a miniature stage for the singers who interacted intensely. In essence, it was a minimal staging of the opera with few costumes and no props. The singers were completely in the moment and, considering how intense Verdi’s focus is in this opera, drama was not lacking. The work unfolded in a single, ever-tightening arc to its harrowing conclusion. In the absence of extensive staging and/or stage direction, the credit must go completely to the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst. He kept the piece flowing while watching his singers like a hawk in order to give them moments to linger and shine, but without letting the momentum sag. It was a masterclass on how to conduct opera.

That flexible yet compelling frame was the ideal launching pad for what proved to be vocally and theatrically impressive performances. Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, is the story of a Moorish military hero who is undermined by his scheming assistant. The piece hinges on the two leads, and this performance was blessed with singers who could deliver the vocal goods, while also having the stage presence needed to drive the drama to its devastating close.

Limmie Pulliam is becoming increasingly known for his Otello, and not simply because he fulfills the modern requirement of actually casting a black singer as the Moorish character. Pulliam has a dark but ringing tenor with the heft to soar over a full symphony orchestra when necessary, but also the ability to curl into soft and intimate phrases: his Otello was just as effective in his love scene with Desdemona as he was in his later jealous rages against her. The fact that Pulliam is physically imposing as well only amplifies his stage presence in this role, which echoes the command of his voice. The audience ovation for Pulliam at the end of the performance was almost frenzied.

Christopher Maltman played the role of Otello’s secret nemesis, Iago, with controlled malevolence. It is the kind of role that can provoke over-the-top scene chewing, but Maltman’s malice was grounded in the music, making this extreme character dramatically believable. At the same time, he displayed an ability to drive his voice to exciting heights where needed, something less familiar to those of us who know him primarily from his recorded Schubert, Schumann and Mahler, where he displays supreme lyricism. From a theatrical perspective, Maltman also brought Iago to life in the use of his eyes, and in the way he seemed hyperaware of every other person on stage with him at every moment. Maltman didn’t have to chew any scenery: his eyes were everywhere, and his voice delivered on their dramatic implications with utter assurance.

Tamara Wilson effectively played Desdemona’s range from sweet innocence to terrified victim, her voice ringing dramatically in the murder scene. She wisely avoided layering on the sweetness too thickly early on. Not only would that be dramatically unnecessary, it would get in the way of Verdi’s relentless tightening of tension, but Wilson skillfully judged her character’s trajectory.

Enormously pleasing to the ear was the bright tenor of Pene Pati as the guileless Cassio. The drunken trio of Cassio, Iago and Owen McCausland’s feisty Roderigo was one of the highlights, each singer’s differing timbre emerging in the both witty and wary music. Jennifer Johnson Cano, familiar from previous visits to the Cleveland Orchestra, was luxury casting as Emilia, and gave the supporting role empathetic depth. Raymond Aceto was imposingly officious as the diplomatic emissary Lodovico, and Kidon Choi did grand service as both The Herald and Montano. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Children’s Chorus added considerably to the opera’s crowd scenes.

Last, but by no means least, I salute the Cleveland Orchestra itself. Skilled in presenting symphonic music, they displayed a relish for the narrative and coloristic elements of Verdi’s most orchestrally-driven opera. The opening scene is a mix of sea, storm and fire, and the orchestra lit it all with bristling energy that also paradoxically glowed from within. I mean no disrespect to the great opera orchestras of the world, but what match are any of them to this orchestra, famous for its chamber-music-like inner coherence? I have simply never heard Italian opera played with such gorgeous richness, without sacrificing its theatrical nerve. Long-time readers of my reviews will know that I have limited patience with the saturated bathos of Tristan or Pelléas. But this? I would listen to these players and singers performing Verdi every night if it were an option.

The theme of the festival, which will include two symphonic concerts as well as further performances of Otello, is the status of outsiders, of which Otello is a quintessential example. The concerts will examine the concept in terms of controversial or forcibly sidelined composers such as Ives, George Walker and Sofia Gubaidulina. It is gratifying to see how powerfully the Cleveland Orchestra has moved in recent years from institutional neutrality to taking cultural stands on such issues as racism, rights and freedom. It is essential to the functional relevance of any arts organization today.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

3 thoughts on “Pulliam and Maltman make star turns in Cleveland in Welser-Möst’s breathtakingly focused <i>Otello</i>”

  1. Thank you for a wonderful review…so happy others are hearing Limmie sing, he is indeed a rising tenor and also a wonderful, caring person in life.

    • and that second part is so precious. he is a mensch of the highest order. and a voice for the ages!

  2. Excellent performance by both Singers. Otello couldn’t have been played by any better singer than my cousin Limmie Pulliam Jr. Congratulations


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