There can be few operas with an opening more breathtaking than Harry Kupfer’s masterful staging of Verdi’s Otello, currently being presented by Opera Australia in the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House.
Amidst the sounds of a raging storm, Otello and his courtiers burst into a war-damaged foyer through French windows high at the back of the stage, which clatter in the screaming wind. As the crowd rushes in they tumble over each other down the huge flight of stairs.
The effect looks so stunningly dangerous you immediately want to reach for the rewind button to see how it’s accomplished. It sets the mood perfectly for the emotional turmoil that follows as Otello succumbs to the jealousy skilfully and relentlessly fanned by his treacherous ensign, Iago.
The entire opera is staged on Hans Schavernoch’s single setting of a massive black and red bomb-scarred staircase dominated by a huge statue of Atlas. For the most part this works well, as the stairs provide endless opportunities for imaginative staging of the huge chorus scenes.
The bomb damage provides plenty of dark areas in which the various characters can skulk and spy. However it’s not so appropriate for the later scenes. Surely Otello would have found a more intimate space in which to harangue and ultimately murder Desdemona.
Making his role debut as the Moorish general, Otello, Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee gives a commanding performance, carefully shaping his interpretation as the opera unfolds. On opening night it took a little time for Lee to locate and define the emotional level for his characterisation which resulted in some stand-and-deliver moments, but his vocal glory was never in doubt.
From his very first melliferous notes the audience sensed that it was listening to an extraordinary voice, enhancing a very physical interpretation which climaxed in a breathtaking final moment when he plummets headfirst down the stairs.
Lee was fortunate to have been cast opposite the remarkable Marco Vratogna secure in one of his signature roles as Iago. When Vratogna releases his dark, brooding baritone there’s no doubting who’s the baddy in this opera, and during their scenes together it was fascinating to watch Lee’s responses to Iago’s manipulative goading, with both singers obviously enjoying the opportunities provided by the other to explore and embellish their own performances.
Also making her role debut as Desdemona, another Korean, soprano Karah Son, provided a captivating, soothing presence between the volcanic performances of the two protagonists. Although Son and Lee made an attractive couple, despite their declarations of love, there were few signs of attraction obvious in their early scenes together.
Son was also hampered by an odd costume choice which had her wearing modern slacks and jacket for one of her scenes, and perhaps her Desdemona could have shown a little more gumption at Otello’s constant accusations of infidelity. Never-the-less, her calm acceptance of her fate as she sang the final Ave Maria was very moving.
For his penultimate opera Verdi focussed most of his attention on the three main characters, however he also surrounded them with some meaty supporting roles, and as has become the norm for this season, these roles were strongly cast and sung.
Virgilio Marina, as Cassio, the unfortunate focus of Otello’s jealousy, Richard Anderson as Lodovico, Andrew Moran as Montano, Richard Anderson as Lodovico, and Sian Sharp as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, Emilia, was a sympathetic presence throughout and despite some curiously staged interactions with Desdemona in the final scenes, her response to Desdemona’ murder was compelling.
Once again the huge Opera Australia chorus was impressive both in the richness and accuracy of its sound and the attention paid to detailed movement and acting, especially when negotiating the rather daunting setting costumed in Yan Tax’s splendid evening wear and voluminous coats.
The icing on the cake for this production was the spirited realisation of Verdi’s magnificent score which has rarely sounded better than as performed here by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the flamboyant baton of Maestro Andrea Battistoni which insured another unforgettable evening of grand opera, in a season notable for the excellence of the individual productions.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Saturday 19 February 2022
Season continues to 19 March 2022
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Opera Australia’s 2022 production of Otello at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM