Otello at West Bay Opera

Vittoria! Evviva!  Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, co-produced by West Bay Opera of Palo Alto and Festival Opera of Walnut Creek, affirms the vitality and relevance of Bay Area regional opera. This unique collaboration shows both a prudent response to financial challenges of producing opera and creates an exciting partnership that brings into our communities a cultural experience of magnitude and beauty. An enthusiastic full house packed Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre for Friday night’s opening performance under conductor José Luis Moscovich.

Director Daniel Helfgot gets right into the heart and mind of Otello, the heroic and vainglorious Venetian Governor of Cyprus whose hold on certainty proves to be his undoing after Iago stirs within him the poison of doubt. All aspects of this production—Peter Crompton’s inspired set design, Steve Mannshardt’s mood-driven lighting, and Callie Floor’s lavish, Venetian jewel-toned costumes—work together to convey Helfgot’s vision of this great tragedy. His poetically translated supertitles give the audience a more accessible, immediate experience.

For any company, Otello would be a daring choice; it is unlaunchable without a trio of Olympian voices to sing the title role, the diabolical Iago, and Otello’s beloved wife Desdemona—not to mention the need for a stellar chorus to carry the opera’s many ensemble scenes and an orchestra that can play Verdi’s through-composed late (1887) masterpiece unceasingly and with Wagnerian intensity.

Moscovich led an orderly ensemble through the opera’s complexities and challenges. The brass excelled, especially the “offstage” trumpets. Peter Lemberg’s Act IV opening plaintive English horn solo perfectly set the mood for the scene in Desdemona’s blue bedchamber, and as Otello entered to murder his wife, the muted double basses lowest, darkest open string note provoked physically palpable terror.

The superb, well-prepared 32-voice chorus, in some ways the backbone of the show, provided immeasurable dimension, atmosphere, color and energy in the small space; it stretched from an almost Greek chorus in Act II to the more dramatic movements generated by the violent tempest at sea that opens the opera.

While Otello, conqueror of man and nature, survives this turbulence, tenor David Gustafson’s vocal storm did not readily abate—possibly due to the untested waters of opening night, or manifestations of flu or allergy.  Nonetheless Gustafson used his instrument to dramatic effect through the notoriously strenuous role, resorting at times to techniques that included Broadway parlando, Sprechstimme, whispering and even shouting. He aptly showed Otello’s departure from reason by an agonized staggering and clutching of his migrainous head. His stunning red costume in the second act sent the unambiguous message that this fiery warrior was en route to committing a crime of passion.

Verdi almost named the opera “Iago,” given the dramatic importance of this villainous and all-too-human character.  Bass-Baritone Philip Skinner created a powerful Iago, playing the role with beguiling Mephistophelean charm. In contrast to Otello, Skinner’s Iago, ornately garbed in gold and black throughout, showed that he, in fact, was the one in control. He suffused the chromatic lines of “Beve” (“Drink”) in Act I with sinister laughter and devilish foot stomping, and even further reinforced his authoritative presence by magically “directing” the scene change between Acts II and III (cleverly creating one compressed 70-minute act).  Though there were some missed opportunities for overall character development and psychological complexity, specifically in his revelatory aria, “Credo in un Dio crudel,” veteran Skinner was in full command of his every movement and vocal articulation, agilely manipulating body and voice to suit Iago’s devious purpose. His captivating bag of tricks included trills, legato, slithering, jerking and twisting about, nuanced color, and Verdi’s extreme dynamics—which include a near world-record seven ppppppp.

Garnering ovations from the crowd, both Otello and Iago appeared in a final bow face off—with Skinner/Iago rascally conceding.

As Desdemona, the opera’s angelic, Madonna-like figure (referenced unmistakably in color and composition to a Renaissance Madonna in the “Dove guardi splendono raggi” (“Wherever you look, brightness shines” tableau), soprano Cynthia Clayton delivered a consistent bel canto performance with innate legato, portamenti and elegant phrasing; her melancholy “Willow Song” yearned for rubato and expansion from the Maestro. Clayton possesses a voice of Mozartian clarity; when Otello wrongly accuses her of infidelity, her reply, “Ah! Non son ciò che esprime quella parola orrenda” (“Ah! I am not that which that horrid word expresses”) is made all the more poignant by her descent from a round high B-flat into a heart-rending, sobbing chest-voiced E-flat.  In subsequent performances, one hopes that Clayton will unleash this fuller, richer sound.

Tenor Nadav Hart portrayed Iago’s career rival Cassio with charming, natural stage presence, and Matthew Lovell sang a smooth-voiced Lodovico. Adam Flowers as Roderigo sounded a bit hoarse. One particular standout was mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice, who brought depth to the role of Desdemona’s attendant, Emilia. Before she relinquishes Desdemona’s fateful handkerchief to her husband Iago, Rice rebukes him impressively: “Son la tua sposa, non la tua schiava” (“I am your wife, not your slave”).

The show repeats Saturday, June 1 at 8 pm and Sunday June 2 at 2 pm at Lucie Stern Theatre, with a June 23 Benefit Concert at the Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center beginning at 4 pm.  Michael Morgan conducts this production of Otello Friday, June 28 at 8 pm and Sunday, June 30 at 2 pm with Festival Opera’s Chorus and Orchestra at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek.

—Rosemary Delia

Photo below, of David Gustafson as Otello and Cynthia Clayton as Desdemona; photo by Otak Jump