On paper the Canadian Opera Company’s new offering, an English National Opera production of Verdi’s Otello directed by David Alden and starring Russell Thomas, Gerald Finley & Tamara Wilson is as good as it gets. It’s an incredible luxury to be able to see a black man with a dramatic tenor voice sing this role, usually sung by Caucasians in blackface. And even better when that man is a good singing actor as Thomas has shown himself to be in recent outings here in Toronto for the COC.
I think it will get better, as indeed it improved after the intermission. In the first two acts the brilliant components didn’t quite gel. I wasn’t sure whether Thomas was over-parted or that the COC orchestra led by the ebullient Johannes Debus was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, too overpowering in volume. I’m thinking the latter, given that the chorus were also sounding a bit overwhelmed in the first act, singing accurately but not as loudly as I would have expected in the heart-stopping storm scene with which the opera opens. But come to think of it, I was reminded of Measha Bruggergosman’s struggles in Idomeneo, wondering if the tentative sound from the chorus was perhaps due to the huge amount of choreography expected of them, challenging movement in places where their singing is also super challenging. They sounded accurate but they couldn’t cut loose. By the time we got to the third act the balance sounded a bit better, a scene where thankfully the direction let them simply stand and sing. Surprise surprise, the voices sounded much bigger.
There are two other important singers to mention.
This is the first time I watched an Otello with so much focus on the Desdemona, namely Tamara Wilson, because hers is a genuine old-fashioned Verdi soprano in the best sense. It was lovely to see a Desdemona looking so happy right into the last act, disturbed and shaken by her husband’s behaviour yet still showing love & kindness to him hopeful and not defeated. This approach to the arc of her character makes every moment watchable. Every little detail was right, from the smiles she had for Cassio—that infuriate her husband—to the conflicted emotions in the last act when she really took the stage, perhaps the finest portrayal seen on a COC stage this season.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have seen me rave about Gerald Finley before, as a singer & actor whom I admire very much. I’m very sympathetic tonight, watching him trying to cope with an odd production that pushes him very much against type vocally & dramatically. When I say that I mean that he’s a good person, being asked to play something not just evil but demonic, and I don’t think there’s any way for good singing or acting to fix that. While I usually avoid spoilers there’s a rather big difference in the way this ends. Iago normally runs away at the end when confronted. In Alden’s production it’s as though Otello & Desdemona die, the others who were observing slink away like zombies, leaving Iago onstage. The winner? In so many ways this seems to push Finley out of his normal comfort zone, because this is played in such an extreme fashion, with vocalism to match.
And that’s problematic for the dynamics of the story. I’ve talked about this before, I think. If Otello is not to look like a complete pathetic dupe, Iago must be believable, must really be “onesto Iago” that we can believe in as a trustworthy person. But this interpretation pushes a very melodramatic reading. I refer you to Tito Gobbi’s delivery of the phrase at the end of the dream aria, when he says he sees the handkerchief in the hand of Cassio, saying “Cassio” in a hushed voice followed by the tenor’s angry explosion. Finley shouts it. There’s a great deal of the portrayal that is done in this unsubtle fashion, what I’d call un-Finley like. But it’s what the production asks him to do, trapping both him and Thomas, with Thomas in a worse position. At the beginning Thomas comes in to sing “Esultate” (exhorting the people to celebrate his victory), then petulantly throws the Venetian flag at the crowd as though he’s angry at them. WTF? I suppose the director wants to signal that Otello is already crazy, so tightly wound that he’s ready to crack up. The love-duet is fabulous—Tamara & Russell sounding exquisite. But then the direction starts to get creepier and creepier. Iago lurks at the end of that duet, and will dominate the beginning of Act IV, which is normally a blessed respite from all the villainy, when we get the two vulnerable women alone in Desdemona’s bedroom, the most beautiful moments of the opera even if you don’t also have Tamara Wilson to sing it. No, Alden wants to invade that too. And of course when we get to the end, the moment of ultimate nobility, “niun mi tema” sung so beautifully by Thomas, the surrounding courtiers slink away, while Iago stares at us in triumph. I’m not sure what Alden thought he was doing, but I’ll tell you what he did for me; he murdered the tragic element in this tragedy. The music is beautiful, the moment should be noble and stirring. The one who should have slunk off, who should finally be brought to justice in the final moments of the opera seems to be gloating. The modernization in the set & costumes (bringing it into the 19th century) didn’t trouble me at all; but changing the ending?
Different story (literally).
Andrew Haji is a likeable Cassio, a perfect foil to Otello in his affability & lyrical directness. Önay Köse was a solid Lodovico. Owen McCausland was a foppish Roderigo, Carolyn Sproule a nerdy Emilia, but very strong in the last scene.
David Alden’s Otello continues at the Four Seasons Centre until May 21st.