A powerful Verdi’s Otello at LA Opera

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor). Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 28.5.2023. (JRo)

Russell Thomas as Otello and Igor Golovatenko as Iago © Cory Weaver

Original Production – John Cox
Director – Joel Ivany
Sets and Costumes – Johan Engels
Lighting – Jason Hand
Chorus director – Jeremy Frank
Children’s Chorus director – Fernando Malvar-Ruiz
Dramaturg – Katherine Syer
Fight and Intimacy director – Andrew Kenneth Moss

Otello – Russell Thomas
Desdemona – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Iago – Igor Golovatenko
Cassio – Anthony Ciaramitaro
Emilia – Sarah Saturnino
Lodovico – Morris Robinson
Roderigo – Anthony León
Montano – Alan Williams
Herald – Ryan Wolfe

LA Opera’s current staging of Otello hails from the 2008 production of John Cox. Though the sets were confused and the costumes dull, there was no question that the music-making in this 2023 version was luminous and thrilling.

When James Conlon is conducting Verdi (or any other opera for that matter), the orchestra shines. Otello was no exception. From the tempestuous moments to the most plaintive, the brilliance of Verdi’s score was powerfully expressed. Conlon achieved a balance that allowed singers to shine while propelling the music forward and heightening the unfolding drama.

Written when Verdi was 74, Otello features a mature hero. The composer is no longer creating young men, new to the stirrings of love, who dive headlong into life. The fate of Otello, who dies by his own hand after murdering his wife, Desdemona, is tragic in the extreme. That a soldier who has suffered and survived battle should end as ignominiously as Otello does is made manifest in a score fraught with heartbreak.

Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Desdemona and Sarah Saturnino as Emilia © Cory Weaver

The cast was a dream. Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Desdemona has the perfect spinto voice: she is able to produce a clear, chiming sound with delicate top notes while lending a darker quality to the lower registers. She exhibited a refinement in her acting and singing that felt innate and authentic. The famed ‘Willow Song’ brought me to tears: with subtlety and beauty, she expanded on the personal tragedy of Desdemona to make the universality of Verdi’s rumination on mortality feel immediate.

I cannot say enough about Igor Golovatenko, a preeminent singer at the Bolshoi Opera. With a buttery baritone, superb musicality and enormous stage presence, his Iago was dashing and dangerous. He put me in mind of the great baritone Sherill Milnes, famous for his Verdi roles. Golovatenko’s Iago exuded charm and made it easy to see how he was capable of bending everyone to his will. His Act II aria on the nature of evil was delivered with a complex range of emotions. Distaste for his own vile inclinations while embracing evil made man’s inhumanity to man feel inevitable.

Russell Thomas, in Verdi’s last great tenor role, gave an outstanding performance as governor of Cyprus and tormented husband. A puppet in the hands of the slick Iago, he was both sympathetic as victim and frightening as executioner. His dusky, rich tenor was a beautiful counterpoint to Willis-Sørensen’s gleaming soprano. When he sang ‘Gia la pleiade ardente al mar discende’ in the Act I love duet, the tranquility of his love for Desdemona was a poignant contrast to the violence of the jealous love to follow.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this Otello was the consensus reached by Iago and Otello in condemning Desdemona to death. Thomas was frightening in his inability to trust his wife, and exemplary in his ability to portray the easily manipulated husband who goes on a jealous rampage. With neither judge nor jury, Desdemona was proclaimed guilty and publicly shamed as the two comrades in arms destroyed her.

The opening of Act III, led by ominous chords from the orchestra, found Thomas sitting slumped in a chair, looking like a lamb ready for slaughter, while Golovatenko stood like a hooded executioner at the block. Willis-Sørensen, all sweet innocence, entered in Scene II, and with every mention of Cassio, her fate grew more certain and Thomas’s anguish more pronounced. The principals were so vivid in both scenes that the drama’s force was volcanic.

With the entrance of the magnetic, imposing bass, Morris Robinson, as the envoy Ludovico, the outside world penetrated the hothouse atmosphere of jealousy and betrayal. Robinson can always be counted on to lend gravitas and splendor to his roles at LA Opera with his lush bass. As Cassio, the fine, ringing tenor of Anthony Ciaramitaro was a stand-out. Also of note was Sarah Saturnino as Emilia. Her strong, flexible mezzo was on display in the crucial final scene when she spoke the truth at last. Rounding out the excellent cast was Anthony León as Rodrigo and Alan Williams as Montano.

Under the direction of Jeremy Frank, the chorus was robust throughout tempest and turmoil and serene in the garden scene of Act II when, along with the children’s chorus, they bestow flowers and gifts on Desdemona.

As in the entombment scene of Aida and Radames, both Otello and Desdemona acknowledge and accept their fates. At the inevitable conclusion, it is Verdi’s haunting score that lingers long after the curtain descends.

Jane Rosenberg    

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