Review: Otello

WILLIAM YEOMAN
James Clayton. Picture: Supplied

OPERA
Otello
WA Opera
4 stars
His Majesty’s Theatre

REVIEW WILLIAM YEOMAN

Verdi's late operatic masterpiece is a work of contradictions. Boito's libretto pares back Shakespeare's Othello while intensifying its emotional and psychological extremes. Verdi's music brings out these interior states in ravishing music that is economical and extravagant, new and old.

Director Simon Phillips' new production of Otello, in which form the opera had its first-ever Perth performance on Tuesday night, is also a work of contradictions. Most, as with the opera, are positive and deliberate. Some, however, are less so.

I hasten to say these latter are few and minor and that this glorious co-production between no fewer than six opera companies - WA Opera, Cape Town Opera, Opera Queensland, NBR New Zealand Opera, State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera - is, certainly as executed by the present performers, really quite superb.

Right from the dramatic opening chorus, in which the crew of an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Middle East watches in trepidation as a heroic, victorious Otello battles a ferocious storm, through to the final tragic scenes where a jealous, unhinged Otello murders his beloved Desdemona before killing himself, one is utterly gripped. This is no small feat for an opera, as many will know.

Musically there is little to find fault with. Tenor Antonello Palombi (Otello) and soprano Cheryl Barker (Desdemona) are nothing short of astonishing in their ability to wring every ounce of emotion from Verdi's equally astonishing score (indeed, Barker's heart-wrenching Willow Song was for me the highlight of this performance). Bass-baritone James Clayton's duplicitous Iago is a masterclass in vocal phrasing and colouring as an aesthetic embodiment of evil.

And if Fiona Campbell (Iago's wife Emilia) is more restrained, deferential, Henry Choo (Cassio), Matthew Lester (Roderigo), Andrew Collis (Lodovico) and the wonderful Andrew Foote (Montano) pull out all the dramatic (vocal) stops despite their limited roles.

The WA Opera Chorus under new head of chorus Joseph Nolan have never sounded crisper, tighter, more focused or more powerful, while WA Opera's artistic director Joseph Colaneri, an acclaimed Verdian, elicited a performance of profound expressivity and refinement from the WA Symphony Orchestra. Expect more great things from the Two Joes.

Dramatically, however, I am in two minds. Phillips has always been one for highlighting the contradiction between naturalness and artificiality, and his naturalistic nautical setting (designed by Dale Ferguson with lighting by Nick Schlieper and costumes by Michael Mitchell) is a fine counterpoint to Verdi's heightened musical language.

Its claustrophobic below-decks and expansive above-deck ocean views are especially successful at translating the aforementioned emotional and psychological extremes.

But why stop there? Why weaken the effects of that (positive) contradiction by allowing the acting to descend, in some cases, into a series of exaggerated, pantomime-like gestures that are frankly comical? Shouldn't the acting match the naturalistic setting, allowing the music and the words to work their magic?

And, more seriously, what's with blacking up Palombi - especially when there are guests from Cape Town Opera Chorus in the WA Opera chorus present?

As I said, these are minor blemishes on what is otherwise a supreme artistic accomplishment of which all involved should be very proud.