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In Review > North America


Houston Grand Opera

In Review Houston Otello hdl 1115
Pérez and O’Neill, Desdemona and Otello in HGO’s John Cox staging
© Lynn Lane 2015

The Houston Grand Opera performance of Verdi’s Otello — in a coproduction shared by Los Angeles Opera, Teatro Regio di Parma and Opéra de Monte Carlo — proved equal parts enrapturing and exasperating with its inspired stage directing by John Cox; a weird set and potpourri of costumes by Johan Engels; a polished, luminescent orchestral performance led by Patrick Summers; and a few standout voices (seen Oct. 24).

Preeminent among the voices was that of Ailyn Pérez, whose rich, silken soprano and onstage poise underscored Desdemona’s beauty and innocence. Pérez’s performance, in her HGO debut, effectively created a focal point to the tragedy of Otello’s jealousy, which culminates in her murder and his suicide. Simon O’Neill, whose previous roles with HGO include Florestan in Fidelio and Lohengrin, was honored this season by HGO with the Lynn Wyatt Great Artist Award. He performed unevenly as Otello. While his acting brilliantly captured the Moor’s disintegration from magnificent hero to tortured madman, O’Neill’s tenor too often sounded pinched and distant. 

Marco Vratogna, gaunt and with shaved head, portrayed a snakelike Iago in his HGO debut. His baritone voice was not powerful, but it could modulate effortlessly from dark and edgy to warm and honeyed, as suitable either to the duplicitous Iago’s cunning, corrosive evil or to his feigned but convincing loyalty. Tenor Norman Reinhardt, as Cassio, was a memorably persuasive falling-down drunk; mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood hit all the emotional notes — sympathy, consolation, indignation and finally horror — of Emilia; and bass Morris Robinson poured vocal warmth and power into the gravitas of the Venetian ambassador, Lodovico. As Montano, HGO Studio Artist Peixin Chen performed impressively with his sonorous but focused bass.

The look of this production was less successful. The set featured a floor that curved, left to right, with the left side higher than the right to create a tilted feel. The sight was unique, unforgettable and baffling. Was this a symbol of Otello’s distorted perspective? Was it meant to evoke a ship’s curved hull or a great wave rolling across our perspective to symbolize Otello as heroic naval commander? Was it a symbol of any kind? On the basis of what we saw, we cannot know — but we should be able to. The curved stage created a dizzying effect of see-sawing action that enhanced the story only during the scene of Cassio’s drunkenness. Otherwise, it was a distraction. The costumes seemed incoherent. Some of them neatly defined the local Cypriots and visiting Venetian dignitaries as we could imagine them from centuries in the past; Desdemona’s dresses also worked unobtrusively and elegantly to convey a lady from a foreign time and place. But Iago, clad in black leather, had the look of a police-state thug from the present; and Cassio, in a double-breasted jacket — with matching slacks tucked into high black boots, and occasionally wearing a cape — had the look of no particular era, or of several.

Cox’s stage directing, by contrast, bears mentioning because it was so natural. A measure of this was the vividly realistic murder of Desdemona by smothering, done in such a way that she lingered long enough to sing her final lines, and Otello’s own lingering death, in which he dragged himself to her for a last kiss. It sounds improbable in description, but in this production it was not only plausible but tragically convincing.

From my seat, the HGO Orchestra, under the baton of Summers, the company’s artistic and music director, sometimes overmatched the singing, but it did full justice to the all-important details of Verdi’s orchestration in crisp trumpet heraldry; in the looming and inexorable air of doom in a powerful blend of the full brass; in the impending tragedy of Otello’s murderous resolve in the virtuoso Act III solo of the basses; and above all in the surging, luminous sound of Otello and Desdemona’s love motive. Over the course of his long career, Verdi’s evolution as an orchestrator was substantial and fascinating, and we were reminded of this in hearing such playing as that of the HGO Orchestra. spacer 


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