OA_OtelloThere can be few opera productions with a more breathtaking opening than Harry Kupfer’s masterful staging of Verdi’s Otello, currently being presented by Opera Australia in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.

Amidst the sounds of a raging storm, Otello and his courtiers burst into a war-damaged foyer, through the French windows high at the back of the stage, and tumble and rush down a huge flight of stairs. The effect looks so stunningly dangerous that you immediately want to reach for the rewind button to see how it is done. However 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 allows plenty of dark areas in which the various characters can skulk and spy. However, it is not so appropriate for the later scenes. Surely Otello would have found a more intimate space in which to harangue and ultimately murder Desdemona.

Armenia soprano, Lianna Haroutounian, making her Australian debut taking over the role of Desdemona at just one week’s notice from Tamar Iveri, proved a pleasant surprise with her dark beauty, warm, milky soprano and captivating stage presence. One might have wished for her to show a little more gumption at Otello’s constant accusations of infidelity, but her calm acceptance of her fate, as she sang the final Ave Maria was very moving.

New Zealand heldentenor, Simon O’Neill, making his role debut as Otello, was a thrilling and commanding Otello, carefully shaping his interpretation as the opera unfolded. His interpretation is very physical and the moment when he plummets headfirst down the stairs is breathtaking. However he is a very pale Otello, which makes Iago’s constant references to “the moor” a bit puzzling.

Another newcomer, tall, dark and swarthy baritone, Claudio Sgura, was an excellent Iago, oozing malevolence and insuring the audience was never in doubt as to who was the baddy in this opera. Richard Anderson (Montano) and David Corcoran (Roderigo) offer fine supporting performances, although James Egglestone was a rather colourless Cassio.

Although having little to do in the early sections of the opera, Jacqueline Dark, as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid, Emilia, was a sympathetic presence throughout, and in the final moments, following Desdemona’s murder, her spirited performance is completely compelling.

Once again the huge Opera Australia chorus was impressive, both in the richness and accuracy of their sound, and with their attention to detail with their movement and acting. Particularly as in this production they have a rather daunting setting to negotiate while wearing at various times costume designer Yan Tax’s splendid evening wear or large coats. As always, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, this time under Christian Badea, impressed with its spirited playing of Verdi’s magnificent score.

Despite what must have been a difficult rehearsal period, given the number of changes from the originally announced cast which offered Tamar Iveri or Nicole Car as Desdemona, Marco Vratogna as Iago and Michael Honeyman as Roderigo, none of whom are present for this season, Harry Kupfer’s superb production, under Revival Director, Roger Press, remains an impressive staging of this Verdi masterpiece.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Wednesday 9 July 2014
Season continues to 2 August 2014
Bookings: (02) 9250 7777 or online at: www.sydneyoperahouse.com

For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.

Image: Lianna Haroutounian as Desdemona and Simon O’Neill as Otello – photo by Branco Gaica

Review: Bill Stephens