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Review: Otello at the Sydney Opera House

Review by Olivia Ruggiero

Otello, composed by Verdi and based on the famous Shakespearean tragedy of the same name, takes place in Venice. It opens with a storm, a metaphorical device that emulates the catastrophe that’s about to occur, and follows the doom of Othello, Iago and Desdemona.

Verdi’s brilliance shines as he manages to encapsulate the opening storm with long dissonant chords held underneath the cascading madness of the woodwind section. His score is full of rich, spectacular, and intense orchestral moments that reflect the power and drama of the story. The orchestra, under the baton of Andrea Battistoni, in this particular production, is at times a little too heavy for the singers who hold some Verdi’s glorious melodic lines. These stunning vocalists are working incredibly hard to be heard over the orchestra, but despite their best efforts, at times their work is lost and drowned in the robust wall of sound being produced by the orchestra. Yonghoon Lee in the titular role does some incredible gentle vocal work with brilliant vocal dexterity and focus but occasionally the orchestra does not seem follow him and continues to play full pelt (no doubt creating magnificent and riveting sound) that overpowers Lee’s exquisite vocal talents. Yonghoon Lee acts superbly – his interpretation of Otello’s descent into madness is sheer brilliance, you can see the inner turmoil in the actor’s eyes as he takes the audience on Otello’s journey. A truly marvellous performance from his first entrance to his last exit.

Karah Son as Desdemona soars in her Act 4 aria’s. These two mammoth sings back-to-back demonstrate her ability to not only sing a near perfect technique but captivate an entire theatre. She has the audience holding their breaths as she exhibits stunning control, gorgeous legato lines and pianissimo’s that ping across every surface of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

The act 1 love duet reveals early on the harmonious pairing that is Lee and Son. Their voices blend together so beautifully. It is the odd choices in direction that leave this duet with a sense of lacking. The pair play the work as though they are two people who have just met and begun to fall in love – not a couple already madly in love on their wedding night. They sing of embraces and kisses whilst on opposite ends of the stage and often without even looking at each other. Lee and Son do their best but their on-stage and vocal chemistry could certainly have been heightened with blocking that allowed these wonderful performers to explore the true nature of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship.

The set design would no doubt have been exquisite in its premiere performance however over time it has become a little dilapidated. The towering staircase which is meant to encapsulate the themes of power in this work is a little worse for wear – with a red-carpet runner that is worn and threadbare and several stairs that creak at the most inopportune moments. The direction doesn’t seem to use the staircase to its full potential. There is an opportunity to play more into the dynamics of relationships and status with this piece, but they seem to make no conscience choices to use the set in this way. The final act is traditionally set in a bedroom, with several references in the libretto, that reflect this. The murder of Desdemona doesn’t quite have the same impact when it does not take place in front of the audience – we hear the sounds of her demise but are not privy to it. There is no problem with changing Otello’s method of murder from strangulation to beating but it does seem entirely strange when she re-emerges from backstage to sing her final lines “on her deathbed” (in this case a staircase) without a hair out of place and no evidence of violence at all. The impact of the tragedy of Otello could have been more in this production if these tiny details had been added in the final act.

The opera may be called Otello but the night surely belonged to Marco Vratogna as Iago. It is obvious that Verdi was fascinated by this two-faced villain, his plot and drama so evidently revolving around Iago. Vratogna owns the role with conviction and ease. His voice, stage presence and acting ability are superb. Effortless and dazzling – he captivates with his rendition of “Credo in un Dio crudel”.

As always the Opera Australia Chorus is a marvel – they are the heart of every opera and never seem to disappoint. A special mention to Sian Sharp in the role of Emilia – her work is wonderful. She does some superb singing and interprets the role well - I look forward to seeing more of in future productions.

Despite some of the production elements being subpar no one can doubt the performers that took to the stage at the Sydney Opera House for Otello, an opera worth seeing to witness these marvellous vocalists and stunning score.

Image Credit: Prudence Upton


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