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Shakespeare Gone

Shakespeare Gone


The L.A. Opera's production of Verdi's climactic Otello is more than a little flat.

Giuseppe Verdi always had a great affinity for and love of Shakespeare's works. It's no wonder, then, that the two masterpieces of his late maturity should have derived their inspiration from the bard. Otello (based on Shakespeare's Othello) premiered February 5, 1887, and was hailed as a masterpiece from the very start. And even hearing the score over a century later, one can see why. Not only is it a summation of everything in Verdi's output that had come before (he would write only one more opera after this one), it distills all the changes in musical language that had evolved in the 19th century, from Rossini to Wagner, while at the same time firmly being a work that only Verdi could have written.

A great performance of Otello (either the original play or Verdi's opera) should be an experience that leaves the viewer or listener emotionally drained; it should be a transforming evening at the theatre; it should be exciting, heartbreaking, and turbulent. It should. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Opera's recent rendition at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was none of these things.

The fault lay mainly with tenor Ian Storey's weak portrayal of the title character and John Cox's tepid direction. Otello's opening lines of triumph, which come at a dramatic climax of a musical sea storm, were delivered by Storey in a muffled half-voice, making the scene, usually a hair-raising one, almost superfluous. Added to this, the fact that Storey couldn't be seen onstage (and wasn't, fully, until his second entrance later in the act) resulted in what is probably the most powerful opening scene in all operatic literature becoming a dull exercise in the art of wasted chances. The love duet at the end of the act was also unimaginatively staged -- this time on a bare, oval-shaped platform (all stage scenery and props from the earlier part of the act having been removed). The two principals barely looked at each other for the duration of the scene. Only Verdi's glorious music could have saved the day -- and it almost did, but not quite.

Although Storey's voice improved during the course of the performance, his acting never did, and Otello, in his hands, came across as a rather clumsy, one-dimensional hero. Cristina Gallardo-Domas's Desdemona was also a great disappointment. About seven or eight years ago this lovely Chilean soprano released a delightful CD of operatic arias that revealed a voice that was sweet, sensual, and oddly powerful. In the intervening time, sadly, her voice has developed a pronounced and highly audible beat, which will no doubt lead to greater problems with vibrato as her career continues. In any case, her performance here was less than stunning, and though she got through her big solo scene in the fourth act admirably, one longed for a Desdemona with the floating vocal line of a Renata Tebaldi or Renee Fleming.

The only performance that proved to be truly exceptional was Mark Delavan's Iago. Delavan captured the malignancy and strange charm of the character while also providing a stunningly rich baritone voice that was hardly equaled by anyone else in the cast. I have heard that he is to be our Wotan in the L.A. Opera's production of Wagner's Ring next year, and I greatly look forward to hearing him.

As usual, conductor James Conlon was a hero of the podium, a man who clearly knows this score backward and forward and delivers every punch just where and when it should be delivered. If only what was happening onstage matched what was going on in the pit, we might have had a truly memorable performance.

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