Otello | Opera AustraliaLeft – Claudio Sgura and Simon O'Neill. Cover – Jacqueline Dark, Lianna Haroutounian, Pelham Andrews, David Corcoran and James Egglestone. Photos – Branco Gaica.

“If you are black, you can’t be Italian.”

That is a paraphrase of current Italian law, which has recently manifested itself in the treatment of Mario Balotelli, currently Italy’s foremost football star, by his own countrymen. We think we progress, but things were similar, not worse, in 16th century Venice, then a colonial power. A black man could become a well-dressed gondolier, as in a well-known painting by Caravaggio. Or he could become a colonial administrator, as described in the Italian source for Shakespeare’s Othello.

When Verdi wrote Otello in the 1880s, Italy had recently become a colonial power again, in Africa. The racist discourse was opening up again. One might be a black citizen, but not also truly Italian. Though never overt, this runs like an undercurrent through Verdi’s portrayal of Otello. The Venetians immediately want to replace him as governor. And does his (white) wife really love him? This is the insecurity which the villain of the piece, Iago, plays ruthlessly upon as he plants the seeds of jealously which first undermine and then destroy the main character.

In Opera Australia’s revival of the 2003 Harry Kupfer production, these three central roles are played with burning conviction. Iago, the villain with all the tricks in the book, is perhaps the most demanding of all Verdi’s villains to sing, because he has such a vast repertoire of personas. Claudio Sgura changed in a second from lyricism to strength, from cajoling to shouting, from the friend to the conspirator, with a control that told the audience who was in charge of this opera. Lianna Haroutounian brought to the role of Desdemona a passionate innocence bodied forth in meltingly intense lyrical singing, for which she received a din of bravos at the curtain-call worthy of any Italian audience. The power of her cry of farewell to her maid Emilia (strongly portrayed by Jacqueline Dark) sent shivers through every member of the audience. And between them Simon O’Neill veered vertiginously between the vocal command of his first appearance as conquering hero, the tenderness of his first scene with Desdemona, the confused suspicion and the raging jealousy which later overcome him, and the utter defeat of the end. I have rarely heard such a convincing fusion of great singing and total character portrayal as in this performance of Otello, itself probably Verdi’s most successful opera in terms of theatre.

Theatre. This production takes place on a single set, a huge staircase which fills the stage. In Opera Australia’s production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea of twenty years ago, such a staircase symbolised Poppea’s ascent from prostitute to empress. In Otello it conversely stood for Otello’s descent from conqueror to victim – his first entrance is right at the top of this impressive stage, and his eventual suicide takes place right at its foot. So far so good – real integration of the setting with the plot. But in terms of the details of staging it caused some awkwardnesses which, unobtrusive at first, gradually foregrounded themselves as the evening progressed. Stairs are difficult things to stand on, they are meant for going up and down. But they are nearly impossible for actors to allow themselves to be hurled down onto stairs without risking injury. Otello is an extremely violent piece of theatre, in which the title character repeatedly throws Desdemona to the ground. The stage compromises for the safety of Haroutounian questioned little by little the realism of the action, which was in other respects maintained with admirable consistency. And – in the last act Desdemona goes to bed. How can you have a bed on stairs?

It is not usually realised what a difficult score this opera has. Unlike Verdi’s earlier operas, which have textures where dramatic contrasts are in evidence but subtlety is less so, Otello has a score which is extremely spare and detailed, and where the instrumentation is constantly changing. Christian Badea directed the orchestra with enormous energy, propelling the drama forward with a sometimes bewildering speed. He occasionally drew magical sounds from the players (wow! The quartet of solo cellos in the love duet! And the cor anglais playing, from Andrew Malec, in the last act!). But one was sometimes on the edge of one’s seat. The AOBO is a very fine orchestra, yet I felt this score pushed them occasionally to the limit of their capacity.

This performance was in general a magnificent synthesis of the immensely multifaceted skills of Opera Australia, and a fantastically powerful theatrical event. By eliciting so much sympathy for the central figure, this opera performs an act of healing in a climate where racism is unfortunately still an issue. Let us hope that it can also achieve this in that land where everyone is an opera-lover as well as a football fan; the land of opera’s birth.

Opera Australia presents
by Giuseppe Verdi

Conductor Christian Badea

Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: July 9, 12, 16. 19, 22, 29, and Aug 2, 2014
Bookings: opera.org.au