A blast of song surge from the chorus, the rolling melody mirroring the raging storm as Otello’s ship is tossed up by the fury. So begins Opera North’s passionate and vibrant production of Otello. Set in a World War Two military headquarters; an accurate and fitting period for military reputation and the differing roles for men and women. Yet, the production managed to get to the heart of the Shakespearian origin of Othello, the combination of music and voice captured those deeply human –and timeless emotions of jealousy, love and hatred.
For fans of the Shakespeare’s’ Othello, they will note a few significant alterations in Verdi’s Otello. Act 1, the revelation of Othello and Desdemona’s secret marriage, is omitted and instead we begin away from the safety of Venice, at the end of the furious sea battle between Turks and Venicians. Yet the play proceeds, if a little speedily at first, through the well-known tragedy. Lovers of Emilia’s feisty feminism, be warned, for this side of Iago’s suffering wife is not incorporated into Verdi’s opera. Indeed, women have vertically no power within Otello.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Othello is a war hero, despite his Moorish race, and is desperately in love with his new wife, Desdemona, the pineal of innocents and goodness. Driven by some devilish hatred of Othello, Iago, supposedly Othello’s trusted friend and loyal solider, plots to twist Othello’s mind against Desdemona and ensure the hero’s downfall into a fatal jealousy.
David Kempster presents Iago as cruel, pitiless and a villain through and through. Iago’s scheming soliloquies where tailored to a melodramatic score, which emphasised, perhaps laboured, his role as the traditional villain. Director, Tim Albery, created some deeply chilling images through the positioning of Iago – most strikingly, during the first act; Iago sat quietly below the baloney where Othello and Desdemona shared their first romantic duo, a tune which haunted the opera throughout. Iago’s presences, in this scene of private love, was suitably disturbing and cast a shadow over their future happiness.
Ronald Samm (Otello) had a voice which drew all eyes to him with its grand quality. His descend into madness, his rolling eyes and clutching hands, was passionate but not so overly melodramatic or reliant on stereotypical gestures. Samm’s portrayal of madness was truly human and truly moving. Desdemona (Elena Kelessidi) too, was portrayed with subtlety and compassion. Her stunning voice, matched perfectly with Samm’s, shone in the moments when Desdemona cries her innocents to her stone-hearted husband.
The set in Act One, several tables laid out like a military mess-hall, was rather clumsy to manoeuvre which distracted from the singers during this scene. The set in the proceeding scenes, especially the single tree to represent the garden, was sweetly simplistic and allowed the focus to remain with the performers. Yet the set’s role was merely practical and its full potential, in aiding the production as a whole, was not fully realised.
One of the best elements of the production has to be the Chorus of Opera North (not to mention the rather younger Children’s Chorus who sang angelically). The chorus’ number and power of collective voices added an epic quality to the production, both in the strong scene and the mess-hall scenes.
Overall, an impressive production of an opera which inherits the sorrowful spirit of the best Shakespearian love-tragedy.
Eve Wersocki Morris