Friday, February 28, 2014

Verdi's Otello

Our president, Frances Dharmalingam, shares her views on this remarkable work.

A few days ago I was at last able to use the Christmas present given to me by my family: a ticket to a performance of Verdi’s opera, Otello, by the WA Opera Company.

I admired the skilful production, particularly the handling of the very large chorus (augmented with singers from South Africa, New Zealand and other parts of Australia) and the choreography of Cassio’s drunken brawl;  revelled in the glorious playing of the WA Symphony Orchestra and the wonderful singing – Desdemona’s beautiful clarity, Otello’s impressive range and control of tone and volume, and the menacing force of Iago; and was impressed by the versatility of the set, which was designed to show economically  and with minimum fuss the many aspects of a great ship, from the operation room, to the decks, to the private apartment of the commander, with a clever suggestion of the endless long corridors and companionways.

It all made a powerful impression, with much to think over at leisure.

At home next day I had time to consider how the Shakespearean text had been used.

The entire action occurred on board an aircraft carrier, either at sea or in harbour on Cyprus, so there were no scenes in Venice. Otello’s courtship (originally described by him to the Venetian senators) was recounted by Otello and Desdemona in a love scene after his safe delivery from the dramatic opening storm, a love scene which occurs off-stage in the play.

Dispensing with the Venetian scenes omitted the parental opposition to the marriage, and the sense of Desdemona’s independent courage in defying father, Duke and senate. Also, the reasons for Iago’s hatred of Otello were somewhat curtailed, and we just had to accept it without extensive explanation.  However, we were given a quite terrifying glimpse into Iago’s nihilistic soul in the detailed self-analysis of a long aria which ended with an almost playful (and illustrative) game of Russian roulette.

For most of the opera I felt that Iago powerfully dominated the action (almost to the point of wondering whether it should have been called Iago rather than Otello). Iago was played by James Clayton. With his tall figure and strong baritone voice, and his excellent acting, it was hardly surprising that he seemed so easily to undermine Otello’s confidence. However, the great turning point (Act III sc. 3 in the play) for me lacked the impetus and dramatic tension of Shakespeare’s dialogue, the rapid exchanges perhaps slowed by the requirements of the music. My daughter turned to me in the interval after this scene with the irritated comment: 'How could Otello  have been so gullible?' It is perhaps unfortunate that I had seen the film of the wonderful National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Othello just a few months ago, in which that scene showed Othello putting up real resistance, fighting every inch of the way before succumbing to Iago’s insinuations.

In the second half, Otello, played by Antonelli Palombi, took a more prominent part, his rage and confusion very effectively conveyed through his singing and acting. It must surely be the ultimate theatrical challenge to combine first-class singing and convincing acting, which modern opera production certainly demands, and this cast rose to the challenge. Cassio, played by Henry Choo, gave a splendid performance as the nice man who knows his own weakness but hasn’t the strength to resist Iago’s blandishments as he allows himself to sink into drunkenness and be completely humiliated.  He sustained his characterisation consistently through the subsequent  events. Fiona Campbell, as Emilia, had a rather less significant role than in the play, but established the fond relationship between Emilia and Desdemona.  The hostility between herself and Iago was also made clear.

Because the action was confined to the ship it was not possible to show the scene in the dark back streets on shore, when Roderigo attempts to murder Cassio, but is himself killed. We were less aware of Roderigo’s part in the action throughout than in the play, with little emphasis on his use to Iago as a source of income as well as a tool in the working out of his plots.

Desdemona’s death scene was genuinely moving, though much prolonged by the prayers (which are not performed in the play) and by the Willow song, which was of course so 'operatic' in contrast with the simplicity of an unaccompanied version. Cheryl Barker’s lovely voice and touching manner did justice to poor Desdemona’s end.

Otello played out the dreadful conclusion of his own weaknesses and insecurities, Palombi showing that he is an actor as well as a fine singer, and he capably commanded the centre of attention, as Iago was relegated to an insignificant corner.

I am not really sure why it was necessary to change the ending. In the opera, Emilia was allowed to live, and Iago committed suicide by shooting himself in the head (an echo of his earlier game) and so escaped the threat of torture and execution back in Venice.  Perhaps leaving him almost ignored in the corner enabled us to focus more fully on Otello’s tragic end – which I certainly did – as a wonderfully stirring production concluded.

I should not like my comparisons between the libretto and the play’s script to be seen as a form of criticism. It is obvious that changes must be made in telling the same story through two different mediums. While I very much enjoyed the opera, I couldn’t resist thinking of the play, of which I am fond, and the exercise allowed me the pleasure of  re-examining it.

James Clayton as Iago

West Australian Opera and Perth International Arts Festival present

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth
4, 6, 8, 11 February 2014

Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verd,
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
A co-production of Cape Town Opera, West Australian Opera,
New Zealand Opera, Opera Queensland,
State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera

Conductor Joseph Colaneri
Director Simon Phillips
Rehearsal Director Matthew Wild
Scenery Designer  Dale Ferguson
Costume Designer Michael Mitchell
Lighting Designer  Nick Schlieper
Lighting Associate Chris Twyman

Otello Antonello Palombi
Desdemona Cheryl Barker
Iago James Clayton
Emilia Fiona Campbell
Cassio Henry Choo
Roderigo Matthew Lester
Lodovico Andrew Collis
Montano Andrew Foote
Herald  David Dockery

Associate Conductor & Head of Chorus  Joseph Nolan
Acting Associate Concertmaster Semra Lee Smith 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Oh, you brute, Brutus!

Richard remembers his first collision with Shakespeare!

As a youth of fourteen, I was in a school class which had been set the task of reading and enacting “Julius Caesar” in English Literature.  I had entertained high hopes of being cast as the dashing Marc Antony, but alas, was allotted the more sombre role of Caesar.

This is what the teacher was hoping for ...
When it came to the assassination scene, the plotters were dispiritedly poking me with their wooden rulers. While I let out a few yelps, our teacher interrupted and called for 'more realism', and my classmates responded accordingly. To every enthusiastic  thrust of those wooden 'daggers' I yelled 'aarrgh' or 'aawrrgh', suppressing my natural inclination to shout 'ouch' as I finally moaned 'Et tu, Brute?' before 'expiring.' I sported the appropriate bruises for weeks thereafter.

Nevertheless, to this day, I still think Antony’s address 'O, thou piece of bleeding earth....' and his oration 'Friends, Romans, countrymen....' are two of the finest examples of prose ever written by Shakespeare or anyone else.