Italian opera has been a cornerstone of the first half of the 2009-10 San Francisco Opera season. This latest Otello was a production by Sir Peter Hall, designed by John Gunter. It was originally presented at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and later successfully revived in Glyndebourne.
In Hall's concept, the action is updated from the fifteenth century to Napoleon's times. The design allows the audience to gaze at structure reminiscent of the panopticon, as theorized by Jeremy Bentham (and significantly developed by Foucault), that is a prison building that allows a warden in the centre to observe everything and everyone around him without being observed. This conceptualization of the space is telling: this is in an opera in which the (anti-)hero, Otello, is obsessed with gaining control over his most precious good, his wife, while failing to realise that he is being fooled by his most trusted lieutenant, Iago – the one who assumes the position of knowledge more powerful than that of the Moorish general.
The downside of such a complex architectural project is that it sometimes surmounts the main action: characters can end up dwarfed on stage. On the other hand, the ensemble scenes – such as the furious tempest that opens the opera – are truly effective.
The most suggestive and imaginative moment was perhaps the scene in which, after the victory against the Turks, the Cypriots celebrate with dances around a fire. A real fire was lit on stage and became the only source of lighting. The images present in the libretto seemed to come to life: 'Guizza, sfavilla, crepita, avvampa, fulgido incendio che invade il cor. Dal raggio attratti vaghi sembianti movono intorno mutando stuol' (It darts, sparkles, crackles, and blazes, the shining fire that invades our hearts. Drawn by the light, lovely forms move about, a changing mass). Thanks also to the subtle orchestral work, the chorus on stage seemed to be turned into the shadows of butterflies evoked in the text.
Johan Botha's Otello was an uneven mixture of fine vocal elegance and a certain lack of grace on the dramatic side. His towering presence on stage sometimes obscured his vocal qualities. On the other hand, it was easy to ignore Botha's weaknesses while concentrating on the smoothness and agility of his singing. Despite some uncertainties in his highest tessitura, Botha's performance was characterised by both fierce trenchancy and delicate smoothness. His pianissimos were memorable; and his furious 'A terra! e piangi!' (To the ground! And cry!) addressed to guiltless Desdemona made both crowd on stage and audience fall in a horror-struck silence.
It was Marco Vratogna, in his San Francisco debut, who gave life to the most consistent character, Iago. Vratogna inhabited the space with elegance, always at ease with cunning pity, mocking and deriding those around him. The clarity of his pronunciation and the precision with which he delivered his lines was impressive. Every gesture and every vocal nuance contributed to the creation of a scheming and seductive character. The lines he delivered in his 'Credo' were devilish and piercing. Vratogna's was a truly first class performance.
It was the combination of Vratogna and Botha's interpretations that gave life to one of the most incisive moments of the performance: the duet between Otello and Iago and the end of Act II. The orchestra built on tragic tension and, at the moment of the two swearing revenge, the drama was overwhelming.
Zvetelina Vassileva wasn't equally convincing. It was difficult to sympathise with the Moor's oppressed wife: it seemed like this Desdemona was charming and flirtatious, rather than guiltless and unwitting. Her white dress wasn't enough to convey the woman's immaculate nature: she seemed somewhat detached from her role, partly due to the severity with which she attacked her vocal part, mainly during the first half of the opera.
Later in the performance, especially in the final act, she managed to exploit more aptly the nuances of her lines. In Act IV we enter Desdemona's bedroom, where the staging offers an intimate yet majestic space in which the tragedy unfolds. The bareness of the bedroom contrasts with the intricate panopticon structure of public spaces seen in the previous acts. This contrast emphasises the precarious and defenceless Desdemona. Lying on the bed, trying to console herself with the company of Emilia, and then singing her last, mournful Ave Maria, Vassileva's Desdemona turns almost into a child. Moments before her execution, her Desdemona finally acquires all the dignity and ingenuity that was lacking previously.
Comprimario characters were effectively cast: Beau Gibson was a convincing Cassio and Renée Tatum portrayed a delicate and tender Emilia. Daniel Montenegro as Roderigo suffered from a strained vocal rendition at the beginning, but he improved as the action went on. Among the supporting cast, it was Eric Halfvarson as Ludovico, the Doge's messenger, that stood out for a performance of the highest standards.
Nicola Luisotti and his musicians offered a positive performance too. All throughout the season, Luisotti showed himself to be particularly able to build on intensity in moments of climax. In this Otello, he brought this feature to the extreme with effective results: the presence of two vigorous voices, Botha and Vratogna, allowed Luisotti to exploit the whole range of colours present in the score. Brasses were particularity powerful and their incisiveness punctuated the orchestral delivery with an inevitability that made the opera's tragic and malicious core come alive.
It is in the most delicate moments that Luisotti could perhaps articulate his reading more suavely. For instance, strings weren't always precise in their pitching, the Ave Maria suffered perhaps from the choice of slightly too fast a tempo: Vassileva wasn't given enough space to expand the warmth and resignation that pervades Desdemona's prayer when she is aware she's about to die by the hand of her beloved.
One of the most elegiac passages was the moment in which the 'bacio' theme – carried by woodwinds and strings during the Act I love duet – is repeated before Otello takes vengeance upon his wife. The orchestra drew suave lines, expanding the colours with utmost delicacy and intensity. It is in moments like this that Luisotti and his musicians show what they can really do.
Musical Director Luisotti and General Director David Gockley are planning celebrations for Verdi's 200th birthday anniversary in 2013, highlighting once more the centrality of the Verdian repertoire for this company. After the San Francisco Opera's Trovatore, which opened the season, and this latest positive, if not completely mature, performance, we cannot but look forward to the Opera's future achievements – within and outside the Verdian universe.
Photos credits: Terrence McCarthy