Review: Otello (Canadian Opera Company)

The Canadian Opera Company brings a perfect interpretation of Verdi’s Otello to the Toronto stage

Canadian Opera Company’s current production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello is the perfect interpretation of this well-known tale for 2019. The original story by Cinthio on which Shakespeare’s play is based was meant as a cautionary tale on the perils of interracial marriage and miscegenation. This production of Verdi’s opera, directed by David Alden comes across as the story of an unscrupulous man fueled by vengeance and racism using his foe’s internalized racism to manipulate him and bring about his demise.

Despite the story’s familiarity, it is easy to get drawn in to this retelling, due to the fine mix of music, staging and casting. The sets are a towering, steely-gray, cold and foreboding, which sets a very sinister tone throughout the performance. Verdi’s score, one of his last, darkest and most complex, is a tour de force to match the visuals. Supple melodies are overlaid on rich orchestration creating a continuous undercurrent of turbulence and conflict.

This is fitting because conflict and subterfuge are what this story is all about. Otello is a Black man living in the Venetian world of the 16th century, but the themes of prejudice and the outsider remain timely.

As a decorated general of the Venetian army, Otello has risen to greatness, but beneath the surface of society’s praise, he is still despised. Assumptions made about his nature based on the colour of his skin will always make him an outsider. His audacity in marrying a beautiful White woman, Desdemona, is an affront to European sensibilities. Iago, his two faced ensign exploits all of this to destroy Otello. Exploiting Otello’s insecurities, he quickly convices him that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio, recently promoted to lieutenant over Iago. Driven into a jealous madness, Otello brutally murders Desdemona. Iago’s wife Emilia then reveals Iago’s machinations and Otello ends his own life.

When I saw the COC’s 2010 production, the title role was played by a White singer with very dark foundation caked on, which was disappointingly reminiscent of blackface. Sadly this practice is a significant aspect of the performance tradition for this work. Suffice it to say, I was delighted when I heard that American tenor Russell Thomas was cast in the role this time. Not only does he look the part, I remember his crisp, tartly sweet voice well from his performances in the title role of Tales of Hoffman (COC 2012) and as Don Jose in Carmen (COC 2016).

Otello is an excellent vehicle for Thomas’ hearty voice and his interpretation of the role demonstrated great sophistication. While Carmen’s Don Jose is a domestic abuser for whom I justifiably have no sympathy, my feelings towards Otello are less one note. His actions are no less reprehensible, but there are so many more reasons why he is such a ripe target for a master manipulator like Iago. Thomas brings all of this to life on stage in the most compelling and authentic way.

I cannot imagine a more sinister and vile Iago than bass-baritone Gerald Finley. His rich, round voice takes on a dark and cloyingly sweet quality that slithered along Verdi’s sinuous melodies for this character. Each note as he needles and goads Otello was like a sharp pin prick to the spine. The whole effect was thoroughly disquieting.

Soprano Tamara Wilson’s Desdemona is breathtaking. Her voice is enchantingly warm and creamy, with impressive evenness throughout her prodigious range. My heart bled during her devastatingly beautiful performance of one of Verdi’s most divine arias Salce, Salce (Willow, Willow) an ominous song about weeping and death.

While there are many stunning and familiar arias in this magnificent opera, some of the most captivating and interesting moments lie in the duets. The marriage of Thomas and Wilson’s voices during Gia nella notte densa, the love duet that concludes Act I was decadently pretty while still drawing out the dark foreshadowing that effected largely through more chromaticism and subtle dissonance than the ear expects from a love duet. The singers both have very substantial voices and are well matched. The contrast created by Wilson’s warm tone and Thomas’ crisper, edgier tone was delightful.

Equally entrancing was Thomas and Finley’s Act II finale Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro (Yes, by the marble heavens I swear). The two men join in a vow of vengeance but it is quite clear that Iago’s vengeance has a very different target. Finley’s stage presence is unparalleled and his delight in his control over Otello is palpable in this scene. This tangible emotion is matched with Thomas’ anguish and outrage over Desdemona’s believed betrayal.

In addition to timeless characters and phenomenal singing, this opera also features lavish orchestration masterfully executed by the COC orchestra under the baton of Johannes Debus. There are also several spectacular choruses, led by Chorus Master Sandra Horst, that add to the show’s dramatic impact.

Definitely a must-see in a truly triumphant 2018-19 season for COC. Otello is certain to be a magical night at the opera for fans and neophytes alike.

Details:

  • Otello is playing until May 21, 2019 at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West)
  • Show times are 7:30 PM on April 27, 30, May 3, 9, 15, 21 with additional matinees at 2:00 PM on May 12, and 4:30 PM on May 18.
  • Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
  • Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653).
  • Tickets can also be purchased on the TodayTix app and website for theatre tickets.

Photo of Gerald Finley and Russel Thomas by Michael Cooper

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