- Canadian Opera Company
- At the Four Seasons Centre
- In Toronto on Wednesday
What the hell's wrong with this guy? Everyone who has encountered any version of Shakespeare's Othello has probably had that thought about the hero who so quickly allows his life to be destroyed by a few insinuations about a handkerchief.
When that question begins to beat you like a hammer, it's time to ask what's wrong with the show. In the case of the Canadian Opera Company's new co-production (with Welsh National Opera) of Verdi's Otello, the answer is: plenty.
Otello is a strange mixture of cutting-edge realism (for 1887) and conventional Italian opera. A good production, such as the one Robin Phillips and Richard Bradshaw brought to life for the COC in 2000, makes you overlook the piece's oddities, or better yet, turns them into virtues.
Otello is Scottish director Paul Curran's first dud for the COC, after an excellent new Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk for the company in 2007, and a very good Tosca last year. His characteristic flair for fine details failed him this time; in fact, he spent much of the opera's three hours emphasizing the obvious and glossing over things that could have made the show matter.
With designers Paul Edwards (sets and costumes) and David Martin Jacques (lighting), Curran set the drama in the 15th century, as Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito did, but loaded the stage with ponderous symbols. A pile of ever-present rocks reminded us that Otello's return to shore through the opening storm wouldn't be repeated when he got into deep water emotionally. Aggressive colour coding badgered us with the fiction that red is a deeply moving symbol of fate and death, green is the epitome of envy, blue is nobility that can so easily be overwhelmed by green and red, etc. A big amber cross dominated the final scene (signalling the need to clear this dangerous intersection?)
That coarse approach tainted the performances by the principals. Tenor Clifton Forbis made a truly heroic noise when that was called for. But when Verdi wanted him to be sempre dolce (always sweet or soft) - in the Moor's first big scene with Desdemona, for example - Forbis couldn't get more dolce than a rugged mezzo forte. It was painful to hear him bawl out the appearance of Venus in the sky, where the score asks him to sing very softly (pianissimo), fading to very, very softly. The hero in this opera has just one act in which to get a grip on our sympathy, and Forbis blew his chance.
Baritone Scott Hendricks played Iago as a big-voiced blowhard throughout the first act. I didn't think he'd be capable of the shading needed to pull off the character's suave trickery; but as Iago's plot expanded, so did Hendricks's use of his vocal resources, including a beguiling sotto voce that became the most dangerous sound in the opera.
Soprano Tiziana Caruso (Desdemona) sang with a dark full sound, and was quite expressive in some of her quieter moments, including much of the last scene. But her bewilderment at her husband's strange delusions didn't take us far into the character's soul. She was hampered by Edwards's insistence on clothing her in most scenes in deep fateful red, the same colour as the floor from which she had to pick herself up too many times.
Tenor Emanuele D'Aguanno played Cassio as a dolt, and was underpowered dramatically and vocally. Smaller parts were well handled by tenor Adam Luther (Roderigo), bass Yuri Vorobiev (Lodovico), baritone Justin Welsh (a Herald) and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (Emilia), though I wish Barton had waited a moment longer before banging on the door in the final act. The COC chorus was in its usual excellent form.
The last act brought home all the ragged chickens set loose earlier in the show. The set reached a pinnacle of incoherence. Forbis trudged in, looking more like Willie Loman than Otello. He did his killing, Iago's plot was exposed with embarrassing briskness, and the big lug took his punishment. By that point, I couldn't care. The best of this opera was all happening in the pit, where Paolo Olmi led the COC Orchestra in a clear and sometimes moving performance of Verdi's complex score. It's a wonderful piece; too bad about the show.
Otello continues until Feb. 28.