San Francisco Opera creates a spectacular work of art out of Guiseppe Verdi’s masterpiece, Otello. This is music director Nicola Luisotti’s third production at SF Opera and perhaps his most impressive and involved score of the season. Luisotti and the Company orchestra bring out all the passion, emotion, conflict and consequence of Verdi’s work, emphasizing the intricate relationship between music and the action on the stage. This is a production to attend twice—once for the experience of the opera as a whole, and then again for the music alone.
From Shakespeare to Verdi, not much changes in this tragedy. Verdi does cut the first Act and thus the role of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, eliminating the initial conflict and issues of race and seduction. Verdi also develops Iago as a true villain, extinguishing any question we may have in Shakespeare’s play as to Iago’s motivation for treachery.
Director Stephen Barlow sets this production in 18th century Cypress, and although the time period doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, it also doesn’t detract from the opera. Costume design is of course 18th century dress, but it’s not overdone and remains a suitably understated accent throughout. Production designer John Gunter’s set is reminiscent of London’s Globe Theatre (until a complete set change in Act Four’s bedroom scene), with a rounded tri-level stage constructed of wooden pillars and latticed panels, opening this palette for an array of angles and patterns cast by Duane Schuler’s lighting design. The mixture of lighting and set design creates a complex array of moods and emotions on the stage.
Talent is in abundance, with both singers and orchestra equal in relevance and grandeur. Act One opens with a burst. The chorus of commoners and soldiers move with the growing fury of a great tempest, inducing Otello’s battle at sea with the Turks. Lightning blinds and the tempest rages with crashing cymbals, strings and fiery flashes from flutes and piccolos. The chorus rides and responds to the waves of this storm. “Dio, fulgor della Bufera!” (“Oh God, the blinding storm!”) The storm subsides and South African tenor Johan Botha as Otello makes a grand entrance as trumpets flourish his victory at sea. The people rejoice around a fire, dancing and singing and burning an image of the Turks to the tune of flutes and plucky violins.
Botha’s voice is as heroic and powerful as his presence. Although Verdi initially considered naming his opera "Iago," it is Otello’s visible and auricular turmoil that drive this tragedy. Botha’s voice is not that of a sweet-voiced romantic tenor, but of an heroic soldier, packed with valor and dignity, although Botha taps into that sweet romantic tendency during his “Kiss Duet” with Desdemona (Zvetelina Vassileva). Botha captures the angst and the abysmal grief of Otello, encompassing the roles of war hero, lover, and finally the ill-fated green monster in the end.
Italian baritone Marco Vratogna (Iago) may have influenced Verdi’s decision on naming this opera had he performed for the composer, himself. Vratogna slithers onto the stage in Act One nearly unseen, lurking behind pillars and in the shadows. He engages Cassio (tenor Beau Gibson) and the chorus in an operatic brindisi delivered in B minor. Beethoven labeled B minor as the “black key” because it implies suffering, melancholy and passive complaint. It’s difficult if not impossible to sympathize with Iago in Verdi’s opera, and more likely we should assume the suffering and melancholy are the futures of Iago’s victims. Gibson’s response in this brindisi is bright and festive in the easy key of B major, underscoring Iago’s manipulative control. Vratogna’s lively though sinister chromatic scale of anaphonic laughter (“ah ah ah”) in allegro concertato style is echoed by the chorus and swirling orchestra as Cassio literally falls into a drunken haze. And if there is still any question as to Iago’s nature, Vratogna, his face hit with harsh lighting, delivers his evil-embracing soliloquy-like credo in the beginning of Act Two downstage and directly to the audience, accompanied by the chaotic trill of the woodwinds. He will later taunt and destroy Otello with the infamous handkerchief, waving it above Otello as Botha clings to the latticed panels below as though grasping for the frail framework of his very life. Vratogna then sneers at Otello in his moment of epileptic weakness, singing “Ecco il Leone!” (Here is the Lion!) while nudging Botha’s face with his boot, his vicious and sarcastic tone again underscored by a low trill from the orchestra. This deep and dark baritone truly frightens.
And he destroys not only Otello, but also a love that was, at least for a moment in time, beautiful and pure. The “Kiss Duet” between Botha and Bulgarian soprano Vassileva at the end of Act One is immaculate and all the more emotional with the knowledge of what will befall the lovers. Staged beautifully, with Botha and Vassileva seated stage right, creating a trine with their bodies—heads together in the shape of one perfect entity—they sing the story of their lives together, of their admiration, and end with their love and desire “Un bacio…un bacio…anora un bacio” (A kiss…a kiss…again a kiss). This is the only pure and peaceful moment in Otello. The orchestra is hopeful and anticipatory, but it is this happiness and serenity Otello bids farewell to at the end of Act Two when he falls into jealousy. The “Kiss Duet” also introduces a powerful melody that repeats twice in the final Act of the opera— when Otello enters Desdemona’s bedroom and again when he commits suicide. The tender melody is a strong and painful reminder of all Otello has lost and tragically destroyed.
Vassileva’s portrayal of Desdemona is dramatically lovely. Independent of a couple of unexpected sour notes, her voice is sweet yet mature, giving some welcome strength to Desdemona, perhaps best portrayed in Act Three when she must defend herself from Otello’s strong accusations and heavy hand. Vivid is the moment Botha attacks Vassileva, throwing her on pew-like benches as though to ravage her.
Prevalent throughout the opera are split screens, if you will, with dual action occurring on stage, filling the house with conflicting and mixed emotions. As Iago plants the initial seeds of jealousy in Otello’s ear in Act Two, Desdemona descends from above like an angel, all in white, as a rustic chorus of children accompanied by onstage reed instruments and mandolins gather around to praise and adore their mistress. Also mesmerizing and forever memorable is the handkerchief quartet during which Iago seizes the handkerchief from Emilia (Renée Tatum). Vratogna, Tatum, Vassileva and Botha are present on stage right to left for this powerful quartet, each wrapped up in their own emotions, with Botha stage left falling deeper and deeper into his jealous abyss as he bids farewell to any vein of happiness. Act Two ends with a continuation of this heroic military march as Vratogna and Botha vow their allegiance to one another, a scene many Shakespeare critics say is a perversion of the offstage wedding vows Otello recently took with Desdemona. Violins, bass and brass overtake the moment in a punctual and adrenaline-inducing finale to Act Two. Blood-red lighting floods the stage and with a violent, flamenco-like turn toward one another, hand in hand, interlocked and raised high, the dramatic oath ends with Vratogna and Botha nose to nose. Cymbals crash and the opera house goes black.
The final Act opens to the trepidation of the woodwinds. The stage is white, but for a tall candleholder stage right carrying a single extinguishable flame. A standing mirror sits stage left on which Otello will hang his now sheathed sword. A sheer white canopy drops from above creating a triangular backdrop for Desdemona’s white deathbed. Anxiety fills this final Act and Vassileva captures the fear, despair and noble acceptance of the ill-fated Desdemona. The “Willow Song” is sorrowful and true to Shakespeare’s emotional intent, though again, carries some sour notes from Vassileva, which are almost forgivable after she sings, beginning in recitative form, the “Ave Maria.” The sinister contrabassoon invites Otello into the room through an unseen back door located behind the sheer drape. Botha’s silhouette grows larger and more imposing as he moves toward the drape. Music, not words, accompanies Botha’s heavy and calculated steps from mirror to candle to Desdemona’s bed, extinguishing all forms of light along the way. The “Kiss” melody reminds, but it does not remedy. The rest… is both monstrous and heartbreakingly tragic. As Otello realizes his grave error, he becomes Shakespeare’s (and Verdi’s) ultimate tragic hero.
When Verdi’s Otello premiered in Milan in 1887, it received twenty curtain calls. Verdi’s deviation from traditional operatic style proved exciting, and the opera was an immediate success. Italian operatic tenor Italo Campanini wrote an impassioned review of the Milan premiere, published in the New York Times on March 20, 1887, but he didn’t write the review until he attended the Milan production twice, the second time to experience the full scope of the score. Campanini later took the title role in Otello’s American premiere at the New York Academy of Music in 1888. San Francisco Opera offers a production to attend twice, and one hundred and twelve years later, Otello still offers, in the words of Italo Campanini, “the force, beauty, and originality of the aged master…”
Otello runs November 8 – December 2 at the San Francisco Opera, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102. Information can be found at sfopera.com.