Otello | WA OperaShakespeare and Verdi combine forces for a dark and sometimes comic thrill in WA Opera’s production of Otello as part of Perth International Arts Festival’s 2014 season.

Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic Othello is here reinterpreted in a modern military setting on an aircraft carrier, as envisioned by director Simon Phillips and designed by Dale Ferguson. WA Opera have joined forces with Cape Town Opera, New Zealand Opera, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera to bring this production of massive scale to life at The Maj.

The opera begins with a surprising flourish, as we are thrust immediately in to the sturm und drang of a military scene – the atmosphere is tense, moody and bustling while a towering Iago, played baritone James Clayton, keeps a stern watch over it all. As the piece develops, we are introduced to a stout, emotive Otello, performed by Italian tenor Antonello Palombi, and a demure Desdemona, sung by soprano Cheryl Barker. These three comprise the triangle at the center of this famous tragedy, and they are a formidable trio indeed.

Othello/Otello is arguably Iago’s tale, and indeed Verdi used the working title Iago for this opera; he’s the man who sets the drama in motion, turning Otello into a mere puppet. James Clayton is physically tailor-made for this role; his strong, rectangular frame is imposing, and his features can transform into something quite Nosferatu-like in a certain light. But what is an imposing figure without any finesse as an actor to captivate and surprise us? We need not wonder with Clayton, for he is as subtle and skilled an actor as he is a precise and expressive vocalist. He moves fluidly from friend to foe as the scene and music requires.

Aiding in him in this fiendish metamorphosis is the superb lighting design by Nick Schlieper; as Iago descends the stairs at center stage, a bank of red lights descends with him, compressing the space and tension, leaving us with the sinking feeling that we are accompanying Iago into the depths of hell. The tables and desks are lit with a stark white light so that when Iago leans over them the twists and turns of Clayton’s expressions are accentuated and distorted.

Cheryl Barker’s Desdemona is suitably bewildered and pitiful, but sadly she does not put up much of a fight for her own well-being. It would have been nice to see the same richness of expression in her character to match the richness of her voice. Palombi’s Otello is quite the opposite; he comes on powerfully strong in his opening solo, and then grows steadily more exaggerated through the course of the action so that by the end, his crashing and tearing around becomes frankly comical. The folding chairs on stage are no match for these larger-than-life men, Otello and Iago, and they do take a beating, as they are thrown around like Frisbees. It’s quite entertaining to watch the rapid demise of the volatile Otello, with Iago maneuvering around him with relatively stoic ease by comparison.

Verdi composed Otello at the end of his career, and it feels quite different from his mid-career output. There is discord and a rawness that communicates greater complexity of expression, which is perfectly married to the complexity of Shakespeare’s tale. It’s also interesting to note how the opera differs from the play (chiefly in that the entire first act of the play is omitted in the opera), and how his librettist Boito managed to pull the essential poetry from the script and work it into the libretto. This may not have the most easily immediately recognizable melodies in Verdi’s catalogue, but it’s certainly one of his most exciting works, and WA Opera (et al) perform it with vigor and verve, with a massive well-costumed chorus and great supporting performers such as Henry Choo (Cassio), Fiona Campbell (Emilia) and Matthew Lester (Roderigo).  

But if you’re planning to catch it, get in quick because there are only three more shows in this too-short run.

Perth International Arts Festival and West Australian Opera present
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: His Majesty's Theatre, Perth
Dates: 4, 6, 8 & 11 February 2014
Bookings: Ticketek 1300 795 012

A co-production of Cape Town Opera, West Australian Opera, New Zealand Opera, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera

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