Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Visit to Verdi's Otello

Last night I went to Opera Queensland's production of Otello, directed by Simon Phillips and conducted by Queensland Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Johannes Fritzsch. It's an opera I've been fond of for many years, so it gave me great pleasure to freshly admire Verdi's great achievement.

There are around 300 operas made from Shakespeare's plays. Only three are of the first rank: Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and two of Verdi's - Otello and Falstaff. Verdi, who celebrates his 200th anniversary this year, adored Shakespeare, even though he could not read English. He devoured new translations. Famously, he sat with King Lear beside his bed for years, but could not find an operatic solution. I suspect that the failure of almost all Shakespearean opera often has to do with an unwillingness to dispense with the poetry. The plays are already brilliantly full and require no further music - a reason why non-poetic texts often make the best operatic source material. In Arrigo Boito, Verdi had a fine librettist who knew how to strip, distill and rearrange a text in a way that allowed Verdi's music to flourish. With Otello, they made an opera that is better than the play. 

The orchestra and chorus were terrific. The QSO played with confidence and nuance, especially in the strings. In fact, I've never heard the QSO play better in the pit - Fritzsch's excellent operatic credentials found new purpose in Brisbane. The Opera Queensland Chorus, always good, dominated. Cheryl Barker gave us an unusually energetic, but still delicate and dedicated Desdemona, which was welcome. She was a genuine highlight. Douglas McNicol's Iago summoned the devil in contrast to her angel, leaving Otello for the turbulent space between.Frank Porretta's Otello was, for me, a little underpowered in the first two acts - but that very much is a matter of taste. I grew up on the clarion-voiced Heldentenor Otellos, especially the indomitable Jon Vickers. But singers such as Beniamino Gigli showed us that the lyric tenor could have success in the role (not that Porretta is that type of tenor). Verdi had significant misgivings about his first Otello, the trumpet blasting, but brilliant, Francesco Tamagno. He felt this singer could not achieve the subtleties required in the duets that end the first and fourth acts. Here, Porretta managed the astral harmonies of the first act and the breathless, exhausted, veiled voice that Verdi wanted in the closing stretch. 

It was interesting that Porretta, a white American, did not 'black up' for the role. That's not as strange a sentence as it seems - the practice that the theatre rightly left behind decades ago is still fairly common in opera. José Cura blacked up at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this year. At London's Royal Opera last year, the Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko did so too. It happens in opera houses all round the world. It's true that there are not enough black tenors to play what is one of opera's great roles - (why have they not been nurtured?). Do we not do the opera then? Do we do it with white singers? How then do we reference race, if at all? (This production didn't reference race - well, the Italian libretto did so, but the English surtitles did not). In the theatre, a white actor cannot play Othello. In the opera, a white singer can, and usually does. A fascinating cultural gap. 
Happy birthday, Verdi. 
In 1887, Francesco Tamagno was the first Otello. Here he is in 1903, aged 53, singing Otello's death scene. 

In contrast, here's Beniamino Gigli singing the same scene in 1940, aged 50.   

And the incomparable Jon Vickers in 1978, aged 52.

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