The set-up: Giuseppe Verdi certainly knew how to start an opera. A tumultuous dissonant chord blasts forth fortissimo, followed by rushing strings and woodwinds. It's a cacophony of nature, as the curtain rises on an aural storm that can only be called Shakespearean - elemental and terrifying. Wind, rain, and waves batter the island. Arrayed on the Cyprian wharf, the entire chorus prays for victory in the ongoing naval battle against the Turks while this ferocious storm adds unexpected dread. Will their vaunted naval commander and governor succeed? Will the Venetians rule the sea once more? Or will the storm sweep all asunder?
Through the mists, Otello's ship appears. In perhaps the most stirring entrance in opera, the commanding figure of the Moor appears on the foredeck. "Esultate!" he exclaims in triumph. "Rejoice, the Muslim foes are defeated. The glory is ours!"
What a way to begin Otello (1887). As if a prelude to the rawness yet to come, the thunderstorm and jubilation begin the opera on a high that never deflates. With a libretto superbly adapted from Shakespeare's tragedy by Arrigo Boito (an avant-garde writer and composer who had scored a minor theatrical success in 1875 with his revised Mefistofele; wrote Ponchielli's La Gioconda; and would later give Verdi his final masterpiece, Falstaff), Verdi climbed to heights even he might never have anticipated. These two were in perfect sync.
In somewhat semi-retirement after Aida and The Requiem, Verdi was considered old-fashioned after the German onslaught from Wagner's music dramas. The titan from Bayreuth had ushered in an operatic revolution with its continuous thread of music, and no "modern" composer was immune. Verdi, as if by osmosis, recognized how contemporary opera needed to be free of the stop-and-go of stand-alone set pieces and all its attendant artificiality. Drama must flow. Otello flows like a torrent. The execution: In Houston Grand Opera's co-production, with former stops in Los Angeles, Parma, and Monte Carlo, Verdi's penultimate work is given a minimalist, abstract wash under director John Cox's thoughtful eye. With its unit set designed by Johan Engels (whose The Passenger from last season was a visual highlight), Renaissance splendor is eschewed for a skewed unit set.
Carved into a scimitar, the wooden stage floor seems to be compressed at both ends, bent into this bowl shape. Simple and geometric with three boxes used for entrances and exits, it's bedecked with a grassy plot for the garden scene, a single chair for the council chamber, and a platform bed for the murderous conclusion. But it's a treacherous playing area, steep and mountainous. The tables in the drinking scene tilt precariously, and the goblets probably need velco to keep them from toppling onto the floor. Is this distortion intended to suggest Otello's jealousy mind becoming unhinged? At best, the design doesn't distract, and Act I, with the specter of the approaching ship and falling billowy curtains, conveys the most drama. Engel's costumes, especially for the chorus, are less apt. The men in their Aran Island wool sweaters and watchcaps cry Peter Grimes, not 16th century Cyprus. Throughout, Michael James Clark's painterly lighting rivals his luscious sepia chiarascuro from The Rape of Lucretia (2012).
Internationally renowned opera director Cox, former head of production at the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival and principal stage director at London's Royal Opera, is noted for his Strauss interpretations, and his superlative Ariadne auf Naxos for HGO (2011) was a singular delight that season. Otello is no less masterful, full of insightful touches and visual coups. When Iago tempts Cassio, he blithely perches on the arm of the chair of state, commanding by proxy and signaling his disgust with his betters. When Otello lies prostrate after venting his rage at the supposed infidelity of wife Desdemona, the last image as the court flees, wondrously timed, is the flag fluttering to the ground. However visual and filled with movement his images are, Cox with all his mastery can not give tenor Simon O'Neill, as the Moor, any semblance of inner life.
Probably other than Siegfried, Otello is the most demanding dramatic tenor role in opera. It is fraught with treacherous declamation, some of it high up in the register, blasted forth against a huge orchestra. The lyrical passages, too, are set high and breathless. Other than the short break he's given after his first entrance, Otello's on stage constantly, no time to rest. One has to be both warrior prince and warrior lover. Although I praised O'Neill when he sang an impassioned Florestan in Fidelio, here at HGO in 2011, Verdi's impassioned Moor doesn't suit him, at least not yet.
His voice sounds pinched and nasal. He hits the highs, but not without effort. The strain shows as he paws the floor in anticipation, planting his feet on the curved floor to gird for the big moment. He made his debut in the role last summer at Opera Australia, so he's still growing into it (if, in fact, one ever grows into Otello, it's such a rich part with unending variations), but after seeing Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo (and hearing Ramon Vinay on recording under Toscanini), the three greatest interpreters of the 20th century, the majesty of the role eludes him. There's a rough grandeur to his Otello that's certainly a part of the Moor, but there's so much left unplumbed. He's also a very big guy, so it's difficult to accept him as the great lover he's supposed to be. (He did prove himself to be a gallant, of sorts, when he daintily replaced Desdemona's wayward shoulder strap prior to Verdi's exquisite love duet that ends Act I.) He was best when on his own, trying to make sense of Iago's insinuations or falling in a swoon when jealousy poisons his mind. Maybe opening night nerves got the better of him and tightened him up?
If white hot passion was absent, soprano Ailyn Perez supplied it in spades as Desdemona. What a honey of a voice - warm, vibrant, a velvet sheen. A beauty on stage, she conquered, soaring in the love duet, later defiantly protesting her innocence, or tenderly saying her prayers in the plangent "Ave Maria.," knowing full well what is about to happen. Our eyes never left her, and we eagerly await her next appearance here in Houston, hopefully soon. Her young career, ascendant, will be fun to watch.
Baritone Marco Vratogna was a well-oiled Iago, slippery and smoothly evil. His voice didn't always carry over the orchestra's maelstrom, but the full portrait of his character always came through with telling body language and debauched stage presence. His famous "Credo," where Iago lays out his hatred of mankind and the hollowness of heaven, was a chilling testament under Vratogna. You could smell the disgust as he spat out his condemnation. The supporting roles were well handled by tenor Norman Reinhardt, as innocent dupe Cassio; mezzo Victoria Livengood, as unwitting Emilia; bass Morris Robinson as the Venetian ambassador; and tenor Kevin Ray as besotted Roderigo.
Maestro Patrick Summers showcased all the blood and thunder and rapture in Verdi's most sublime score. He's in love with this music, and we hear it. Nobody writes for chorus like Verdi, and Otello's chorus is its own character, an integral part of the rich drama. Under chorus master Richard Bado and children's chorus director Karen Reeves, the groups resounded with tremendous excitement and conviction. They might not have much to do in this production other than stand as a block and sing, but sing they do, most astoundingly.
The verdict: Otello is a masterpiece. When it premiered at La Scala to delirious approval, Verdi was 73 years old. There is nothing old in this opera at all. Full of life with all its glories and horrors, man at best and worst, this singular opera gets younger at each hearing.
A note: The HGO suffers under the delusion that the first sight of a descending proscenium curtain is a signal to begin applause. This practice must stop. If the impolite audience hasn't the sense to wait for music's end, then perhaps the management should oblige and hold the curtain drop until the composer has finished talking. Remaining performances of Otello are scheduled for November 1,4, 7 at Houston Grand Opera at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.hgo.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$345.50.