Monday, October 28, 2019

Otello at WNO

For my first opera outing on American soil in two years (!), I took in Washington National Opera's very strong Otello season opener Saturday night. Famous for DC sightings were in short supply I'm afraid, aside from diehard RBG (who entered to a raucous standing ovation). I did, however, spy an extremely brazen mouse who apparently likes to hang out around Orchestra row T on the outside left aisle during shows (paging KC maintenance).

This ENO/Royal Swedish Opera/Teatro Real co-production, directed by David Alden, has been around the block a few times (gotta love a production pedigree that sounds like a multilateral trade agreement) and was familiar to me from watching this vid years ago. It is conceptually tame relative to some of Alden’s other work: the unit set and late Victorian costumes plant us squarely in generic Europe times and things unfold in a fairly straightforward fashion from there. But I enjoyed the moody atmosphere and found it effective at keeping the central dramatic triangle in the foreground. Staging of the Act I crowd material was particularly well handled, creating a sense of claustrophobia and menace within the limited set space. Perhaps less successfully, the Act II peasant/children’s chorus for Desdemona is all sung offstage while several silent children/soldiers mutely offer her the flowers. I can see how the usual masses of choristers onstage at this point distract from the brewing tension for the subsequent scene, though it also gets tiresome to listen to that much offstage choir.

(Directorial pet peeve sidebar: you know that thing where the leads in opera productions frequently end up canoodling on the ground? Where the scene is a living room with perfectly good furniture but everyone ends up pawing each other on the floor and showing off how good they are at singing on their backs? This production takes things one step further, where we are asked to believe that, at the end of Act I, Desdemona, in her nightie, is so moved by passion that she decides to lie down and then make out with Otello on what has been established as cobblestones that are surely extremely wet from having just been the site of 1) a storm and 2) a drunken melee. C’mon.)

The most striking thing about this production is the extreme lighting that is something of an Alden trademark. The design makes use of harsh white washes to create a stark, expressionistic look and  interesting shadow effects. It also has the practical benefit of allowing Otello to “hide” in Act II by simply stepping into the shadows rather than ducking behind a piece of set. At other times, it felt a bit misguided, as singers got caught in darkness for no discernible purpose (though it seemed like there were also some opening night kinks in play).

But back to that cast. Appearing for the first time with WNO, regular Met fixture George Gagnidze’s assertive, even baritone soared through Iago’s music. His “Credo” offered plenty of throwback vocal grandeur, filling the house with charismatic sound and tossing off those big forte flourishes with ease. Indeed the vocal package is so appealing one might be forgiven for not noticing that his characterization for Iago is ultimately a bit generic.

American Leah Crocetto matched Gagnidze in vocal glamour and then some, turning in a Desdemona of really special beauty. The voice is gorgeous to be sure, but one was also struck by how much she understands how to create a sense of vocal drama over time as Desdemona wanders in and out of the story. Her voice rarely more than a silvery thread in happy wife mode well into Act II, her first real emotional outburst was overwhelming in its directness and intensity--more than one sparkly patron in my vicinity audibly gasped. I am sometimes lukewarm on the Willow Song; too much reliance on the pretty melody at this late stage in the drama can feel cloying. Not a problem here: Crocetto’s delicate phrasing and engaged reading made this and the subsequent prayer made Desdemona’s final statement both enthralling and heartbreaking.

An Otello with no tradeoffs is a very rare thing, and Russell Thomas’ assumption was no exception. While he has successfully brought together the pieces needed to pull this off, at least as of now, those pieces haven't cohered into a vocally unified whole. In his comfort zone, Thomas’ warm tenor was a joy to listen to, finding the legato sweetness in this part that can easily be lost with heavier voices. But he seemed to be reaching for low notes, while some of the quick turn mezza voce and high piano effects e.g. in the Act I duet were not well integrated and wavered around the pitch. As for those big punishing passages that find Verdi creeping into Wagner’s turf, Thomas carried these off with gutsy, exciting singing (except perhaps for that brutal opening bit which was still clearly in warm-up mode). Yet it was clear, for instance when matched with Gagnidze for the duet at the end of Act II, that his voice is still probably a size smaller than what the part really calls for.

Interpretation-wise this is a strong if not particularly distinctive portrayal. Thomas pulled off some good foreshadowing bits in the first Act that laid a bit more groundwork for Act II’s sudden paranoia, and the subsequent descent was fully realized. (Watching Otellos lose their shit at Iago’s slightest provocation sure makes one want to complain that a given actor’s turn isn’t believable, but rewatching this one is struck at how hard it is to make something gradual out of Otello’s Act II material.)

Supporting cast was strong all around but special attention must be paid to former WNO young artist Deborah Nansteel, who threatened to steal the final moments of the show with an Emilia of particularly righteous fury.

Italian maestro Daniele Callegari’s leadership in the pit was a special highlight of the evening. In Act I he refused to indulge anything less than the blistering tempi that make this music really exhilarating, while still managing to deliver the overall transparency and precision that allowed one to appreciate lots of details from this fascinating late Verdi score. The Act III chorus sequence was expertly built to an overwhelming climax. WNO Chorus and Orchestra both excelled here, gamely meeting Callegari’s demands. He also proved a sensitive accompanist for the singers, never allowing the balance to get out of line despite a wide range of voices to contend with.

(Full disclosure: I once had the pleasure of being raked over the coals by Callegari as part of a very non professional opera chorus backing up a Wolf Trap Aida. If you ever want some real fast lessons on how Italian opera works just try to show up and sight read that impossibly delicate Act I men’s chorus at a casual mezzo piano for someone like Callegari. See how that works out for you.)