‘Otello’ at San Francisco Opera


Good singing v. good acting

As the closing production of its season, the San Francisco Opera presents Verdi’s penultimate opera, Otello, which opened this past Sunday at the War Memorial Opera House. If this production is representative of the administration’s policy to make Verdi “a staple of this opera house,” then the seasons ahead will be less than thrilling: competent, with fine moments, and deferential to tradition, but for the most part predictable and decidedly less than delicious. After five preceding productions that were lively and innovative and which aligned with and reinforced the ideology of “good singing will out,” this past weekend’s Otello made it clear that good singing and enthusiasm at the podium need to be supported by imaginative directing and charismatic acting.

Certainly Johan Botha is a superb tenor with power and dimension in his voice; he seemed to breeze through the part. And soprano Zvetelina Vassileva was lovely of both form and voice; the sweetness of her portrayal of Desdemona was one of the more engaging features of the drama and gave the opera some of its few inspired moments. The love duet closing Act 1, “Quando narravi” was tenderly sung by both Botha and Vassileva. Likewise, Marco Vratogna made a convincing Iago, with a large and compelling baritone.

Iago, Desdemona and Otello are the constellation that sets the dramatic energy of the production. Whether it was a fault of the directing or the acting, there was a solemnity or restraint—perhaps it was a lack of focused emotional connection—about the lead singers’ interactions that weighed on the dramatic action.

One stage is not another

Part of the problem is Verdi. The score of Otello is often praised for its complexities, which are Wagneresque in their motive flow and rhythmically less emotionally contradictory than in many of the composer’s earlier operas. But this musical appreciation of the opera only comes out with study and familiarity; without that, the opera rests on the portrayal of the personalities involved. With Verdi, these personalities often border on the cliché and, in the case of Otello, the melodramatic.

Iago is a case in point. Perhaps one of the most perplexing issues of Shakespeare’s play is that Iago’s malevolence, though complete, is enigmatic. The viewer can only guess at his motivations and wonder at his unrelenting and terrifying hatred. Verdi, on the other hand, gives him a credo—“Credo in un Dio crudel”—in which he presents a philosophy of divine evil. It’s a theatrical decision that robs the character of potential changeability and divides the world into good and bad, neatly defusing the possibility that evil can lurk within us all and lessening the drama’s central tension. Consequently, it becomes difficult to read complexity and vacillation into Otello’s actions; he just seems ridiculously jealous. This predilection toward moralistic simplicity often colors Verdi’s worldview. I’m not saying that opera should exactly imitate theater or vice versa, however, some of their concerns are shared.

Though wonderfully effective for the opening scene with its thunder and lightning, the production design by John Gunter also had awkward moments. The screens that comprised three walls of the sets were effective in their patterns of backlit slatted light and dark. The screens within the screens in the second act makes a fussy barrier between the action of the choruses “in the street” and Otello’s “office.” And Otello’s sword-wielding shadow thrown on the bed’s canopy was clumsy and unnecessary.

The production originated at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Stephen Barlow was the revival director. The orchestra was wonderful, as usual, and Maestro Luisotti’s direction thoughtful and committed. The roles of Cassio and Emilia were sung by Merola and Adler alumni Beau Gibson and Reneé Tatum.

—Jaime Robles