Washington National Opera opened its 2019-20 season at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello signaling that the company, under the leadership of Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and General Director Timothy O’Leary, goes from strength to strength as it embarks upon its 64th season.
Verdi esteemed no writer more highly than Shakespeare, and the extent of the bard’s influence upon the composer extends well beyond the three operas (Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff) that are directly based on Shakespeare plays. It is no surprise, therefore, that Verdi couldn’t resist an invitation from his publisher to collaborate with the young librettist, Arrigo Boito, on an opera based on Othello—even if it meant interrupting a comfortable retirement. The overtly “operatic” qualities of Shakespeare’s play (George Bernard Shaw went so far as to refer to the source work as a “play written by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera”) are maximized by Boito and Verdi in what is widely regarded as one of the crowning glories of Verdi’s storied career.
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The success of any production of this opera rests largely upon the shoulders of the three singers portraying Otello, Iago, and Desdemona—each of them given music of exceptional range that demands great versatility from the artists. Desdemona is the most conventionally “Italianate” of these characters, with music in which Verdi himself said that the “melodic line never ceases from beginning to end.”
But it is not quite so simple, as Verdi still demands very different types of singing from his female lead—from the gentle lyricism of Acts I and IV to the demanding dramatic work of Act III. The soprano Leah Crocetto negotiated these shifts with admirable facility and shone most brilliantly in the wrenching Act III scene with Otello where the full power of her clarion upper register reflected her increasing desperation and her impassioned but ultimately futile declarations of innocence. While one might have hoped for a more understated rendering of the “Willow Song,” Crocetto’s stunning “Ave Maria” in Act IV (ably supported with responsive playing from the WNO Orchestra string section) was a masterclass in subtlety and control and proved to be a true showstopper—the only moment in Saturday’s performance when the continuous flow of Verdi’s music was interrupted by audience applause.
Iago is at the other extreme—a character who infrequently “sings” in the true sense of the word but, as Verdi described it, more often “declaims” in a constantly shifting style matching his protean capacity for duplicity and manipulation. In his WNO debut, the baritone George Gagnidze was a commanding presence both musically and dramatically, whose performance helps one understand why Verdi and Boito initially planned to call their opera Iago. From the frantic energy of the Act I drinking song, to his shattering interpretation of the iconic “Credo,” to the calculated guile of his conversations with Otello, Gagnidze was everything that one could have hoped for in this most complex of Shakespearean villains.
Otello closes November 16, 2019. Details and tickets
The music of the title character makes the most varied demands upon the singer—requiring both the easy lyricism of a bel canto lover in the fleeting moments of tenderness with Desdemona and the stentorian tones of a warrior hero. The tenor Russell Thomas has steely, ringing high notes in abundance, and, while never actually losing control of his voice, he went about as far as he could in an effort to suggest the extent of Otello’s undoing at the hands of Iago. The approach was risky, bold, and largely successful. Thomas’s depiction of Otello’s emotional outbursts came across as uniformly intense, but, with more nuance and variety, he might have traced a more progressive journey from suspicion to madness.
Among the smaller roles, the tenor Zach Borichevsky had a strong turn as Cassio, and the mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel brought pathos and power to the role of Emilia, stepping out of the shadows to command the stage in the final moments of Act IV.
The Italian conductor Daniele Callegari, returning to WNO for the first time since leading Un Ballo in Maschera in 2010, maintained a taut sense of pacing throughout the evening while allowing adequate “breathing space” for the opera’s relatively few moments of lyrical repose. Revelling in the infinite colors of Verdi’s orchestration, Callegari elicited sensitive and detailed playing from the WNO Orchestra with especially fine contributions from the winds and brass. The WNO Chorus, prepared by Chorus Master Stephen Gathman, rose to the considerable challenges of the score, singing with fine diction and rhythmic energy.
The staging, a co-production of English National Opera, Royal Swedish Opera, and the Teatro Real Madrid, directed by David Alden, paled in comparison with the musical strengths of the production. With a single large set piece framing both interior and exterior scenes in and around a dilapidated structure washed in gray, the staging was both visually bland and, at times, logically inconsistent.
The bonfire kindled outside the castle in Act I was re-ignited in Act IV, but now in Desdemona’s bedchamber—a sparsely furnished space with no bed. The fire in Acts I and IV was one of the more graceful and effective lighting choices in a production otherwise bathed in whitish-gray hues, the monotony of which further blurred the distinction between interior and exterior spaces. Costumes and props were vaguely suggestive of the first quarter of the 20th century, but details were imprecise. The use of an icon of the Madonna as a symbol of Otello’s idealized vision of Desdemona—placed next to her in Act II, desperately clutched by Otello at the beginning of Act III, then lifted over his head as he is poised to strike Desdemona, then finally used as a dartboard by Cassio—was a clumsy and gratuitous choice.
In her welcome letter to the audience, Zambello noted that it had long been her wish to bring Otello to WNO but that she waited to line up all of the right elements to present the work here in DC. Overall, Saturday night’s production suggested that Zambello’s patience has paid off—as she has indeed brought together many, if perhaps not all, of the pieces to do justice to Verdi and Boito’s masterful treatment of Shakespeare.
Otello, an opera in four acts. Music by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Arrigo Boito. Based on the play by William Shakespeare. Conductor: Daniele Callegari. Director: David Alden. Washington National Opera Orchestra, Washington National Opera Chorus, Washington National Opera Children’s Chorus. Cast: Leah Crocetto (Desdemona), Russell Thomas (Othello), Iago (George Gagnidze), Deborah Nansteel (Emilia), Zach Borichevsky (Cassio), Alexander McKissick (Roderigo), Hunter Enoch (Montano/Herald), Wei Wu (Lodovico), Claudia Agüero, Mariño (Solo Dancer). Set and Costume Designer: Jon Morrell. Lighting Designer: Andrew Cutbush. Choreographer: Maxine Braham. Fight Coordinator: Casey Kaleba. Cover Conductor & Diction Coach: Giovanni Reggioli. Assistant Conductors: Michael Baitzer & Matthew Lobaugh. Chorus Master: Steven Gathman. Assistant Director: David Toro. Stage Manager: Lynn Krynicki. Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Richard Giarusso.