S.F. Opera's red-hot 'Otello'

In Shakespeare's “Othello,” the first act of more than 1,000 lines sets the scene, establishes relationships and motivation in the seminal drama about the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy.

In Verdi's “Otello,” that entire act disappears, the curtain rises on a storm from which the hero emerges telling the crowd to celebrate a great victory.

With Arrigo Boito's genius of a libretto which compresses and illuminates Shakespeare's play in a truly operatic form, and Verdi's impassioned, gloriously melodic and rhythmically exciting music, the great opera received royal treatment in the War Memorial Sunday, opening a series of seven performances.

With Nicola Luisotti conducting the orchestra at its best and Ian Robertson's chorus in peak form, the production is also graced by San Francisco debuts of Johan Botha in the title role and Marco Vratogna as Iago.

The South African tenor and the Italian baritone are extraordinary singers. Separately and together, they sing big, and right on the money, seemingly without effort.

Botha's entrance aria, for example, has “only” a high B-natural grace note; yet the performance Sunday was as if it were a high, sustained clarion note of the kind so thrilling about great tenors.

Vratogna 's melodious baritone is amazing, his high notes clear and powerful.

Both give wonderful acting performances. Botha is majestic and towering, yet believable, invoking sympathy. Vratogna is properly evil, never a caricature.

Zvetelina Vassileva's Desdemona draws respect, but not love. Her fine, clear, accurate voice lacks colors and shading, and her acting leaves something to be desired.

Most conductors pause for expected applause after important arias such as Iago's “Credo” or Desdemona's “Ave Maria,” but Luisotti doesn't; he drives the music on, maintaining the work's integrity.

Luisotti seems to have been born to conduct “Otello.” Through the storms, waves of sound, orchestra and chorus joining in raging passages, he maintains flawless momentum and exemplary balance.

The singers could be heard at all times, albeit they had to do their best to have their place in the sun.  

Speaking of light, there is very little of it in John Gunter's production from the Chicago Lyric Opera. The strange, three-story courtyard-like set (for all but the last act), with its Venetian (wink-wink) blinds, is kept in the kind of murk no Mediterranean island displays.

Peter Hall's direction in Stephen Barlow's revival is straightforward, but the Otello-Iago chest-bump as the climax of the Act 2 revenge duet is passing strange.

Eric Halfvarson's three-line Lodovico is up with the stars. Beau Gibson's Cassio and Renée Tatum's Emilia are fine.

This “Otello” meets the standard of a truly good performance. Details are not important when the music makes a visceral impact the way it does here. 
 

OPERA REVIEW
Otello
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 13, 17, 21; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 25, Dec. 2; 2 p.m. Nov. 29
Tickets: $15 to $310
Contact: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com
 

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