Melbourne Opera Stephen Smith as Otello with Elena Xanthoudakis as Desdemona in OtelloIf you’re an Otello fan, don’t miss this rare opportunity to see Rossini’s operatic interpretation. Written after Shakespeare’s play and before Verdi’s more famous opera, Melbourne Opera and acclaimed director Bruce Beresford have brought this version to life for the first time in Australia.

It is a thrill to see Bruce Beresford’s direction live on stage. Better known for his film career including Driving Miss Daisy, Mao’s Last Dancer and most recently the film adaptation of Ladies in Black, Beresford has also directed operas for many companies in Australia and the United States. His choice of Rossini’s Otello seems to stem from his penchant for strong characters.

Differing from Shakespeare’s interpretation, Rossini focusses on the love triangle surrounding Desdemona, played by Elena Xanthoudakis. Her true love Otello, played by Stephen Smith, is tricked by the jealous Rodrigo, Boyd Owen, and conniving Iago, Henry Choo, who also desire Desdemona’s love, into believing Desdemona has fallen in love with Rodrigo, and it all ends in tragedy.

These four characters, plus Desdemona’s father Elmiro, Roger Howell (and Peter Tregear on opening night) and Emilia, Dimity Shepherd, are the focus of the story. Thankfully it was not difficult to follow as a complex storyline could have taken away from the sublime singing.

The powerful tones of the six tenors were well matched by Xanthoudakis. The bel canto style’s demand for clear enunciation and the fact it was sung in English also made it easy to appreciate the dramatic simplicity of the libretto.

Set amongst the nobility of Venice in early nineteenth-century Italy, it is certainly a relic of its time. Otello is supposedly loved by the Venetians for his heroic deeds and noble demeanour, yet Desdemona’s father does not think he’s good enough to marry his daughter.

Desdemona is objectified by the three men who love her, which ultimately leads to her murder. I must admit the message that love conquers any prejudice was lost on me, at least in this rendition of the story.

The sets and costumes were fittingly elegant and dramatic. The use of the digital backdrop was subtle and atmospheric, mostly displaying dreamy night skies or Venetian town squares. The large marble walls were particularly striking in the final tragic death scene. Overall a charming night at the opera.

Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 17 October 2018 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 27 October 2018
Information and Bookings: www.melbourneopera.com

Image: Stephen Smith as Otello and Elena Xanthoudakis as Desdemona in Otello – photo by Robin Halls

Review: Sophia Dickinson