Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Mark Padmore on festivals, lieder and musical conversations

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, at the start of my conversation with Mark Padmore, that I had not previously been aware of the annual music festival held in the small Cotswolds town of Tetbury, which was founded in 2002 and to which Padmore will return later this month to perform a recital of lieder by Schubert and Schumann with pianist Till Fellner.

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Giovanni Simon Mayr: Medea in Corinto

The Bavarian-born Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845) trained and made his career in Italy and thus ended up calling himself Giovanni Simone Mayr, or simply G. S. Mayr. He is best known for having been composition teacher to Giuseppe Donizetti.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

Matthias Goerne: Bach Cantatas for Bass

In this new release for Harmonia Mundi, German baritone Matthias Goerne presents us with two gems of Bach’s cantata repertoire, with the texts of both BWV 56 and 82 exploring one’s sense of hope in death.  Goerne adeptly interprets the paradoxical combination of hope and despair that underpins these works, deploying a graceful lyricism alongside a richer, darker bass register.

Gramophone Award Winner — Matthias Goerne Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge

Winner of the 2017 Gramophone Awards, vocal category - Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach - Johannes Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge and other Brahms Lieder. Here is why ! An exceptional recording, probably a new benchmark.

A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

This Prom was all about places: geographical, physical, pictorial, poetic, psychological. And, as we journeyed through these landscapes of the mind, there was plenty of reminiscence and nostalgia too, not least in Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The Queen's Lace Handkerchief: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

Billed as the ‘First British Performance’ - though it had had a prior, quasi-private outing at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe in July - Opera della Luna’s production of Johann Strauss Jnr’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief (Das Spitzentuch der Königin) at Wilton’s Music Hall began to sound pretty familiar half-way through the overture (which was played with spark and elegance by conductor Toby Purser’s twelve-piece orchestra).

Véronique Gens: Visions from Grand Opéra

Ravishing : Visions, Véronique Gens in a glorious new recording of French operatic gems, with Hervé Niquet conducting the Münchener Rundfunkorchester. This disc is a companion piece to Néère, where Gens sang familiar Duparc, Hahn, and Chausson mélodies.

Glyndebourne perform La clemenza di Tito at the Proms

The advantage of Glyndebourne Opera’s performances at the BBC Proms is that they give us a chance to concentrate on the music making. And there was plenty of high-quality music-making on offer at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 28 August 2017 when Glyndebourne Opera performed Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska in Pesaro

The rare and somewhat interesting Rossini! Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815) comes just after Elisabetta, Regina di Ingleterra (the first of his nineteen operas for Naples) — a huge success, and just before Il barbiere di Siviglia in Rome — a failure.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Johan Botha as Otello [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
02 Dec 2009

Otello in San Francisco

Sir Peter Hall created this production of Otello at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2001.

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

Otello: Johan Botha; Desdemona: Zvetelina Vassileva; Iago: Marco Vratogna; Cassio: Beau Gibson; Emilia: Renée Tatum; Lodovico: Eric Halfvarson; Roderigo: Daniel Montenegro; Montano: Julien Robbins; Herald: Austin Kness. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Peter J. Hall. Revival Director: Stephen Barlow. Production Designer: John Gunter. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech.

Above: Johan Botha as Otello

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera

 

While the SFO program booklet credits the production to Mr. Hall it does not provide a biography of his accomplishments, a tool useful for placing a production in context. That Sir Peter founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was the general director of Britain’s National Theatre would tell us that we have a theatrically sophisticated director, that he was the general director of the Glyndebourne Festival well establish him as a sophisticated opera director. It would be interesting to know what Peter Hall opera and theater productions have previously played in San Francisco — Chicago Lyric boasts five Peter Hall productions, Denver premiered his ill-fated Tarquinius, Los Angeles Opera gave us his former wife Maria Ewing as his Salome.

However Peter Hall’s Otello was staged in San Francisco by Australian Stephen Barlow for whom there is a biography that includes assisting many directors at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and staging many revival productions, i.e. originally directed by someone else. Curiosity nags about the original Peter Hall Otello with Ben Heppner and its Glyndebourne revival with David Rendall and if these performances achieved the formidable stature of Mr. Barlow’s San Francisco staging with Johan Botha.

Desdemona_Vassileva.pngZvetelina Vassileva (Desdemona)

Perhaps key to understanding this fine San Francisco Otello is the Desdemona of Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, a role she has previously performed only in Sofia (according to the program booklet biography). Mme. Zvetelina possesses a large, quite beautiful Slavic voice, and seems to be a careful musician. She was able to project a waif like, lost presence, and hold these attributes for the duration of the performance, never complicating Verdi’s heroine with an Italianate sweetness and beauty, or the pathos that Verdi imbued into his last act.

Dressed in white, with a blond wig, Mme. Vassileva evoked Bianca, the phantom lover of Cassio and she was the symbol of the vulnerable side of Shakespeare’s fierce fighter, the inflamed warrior who would succumb to the power of Venus. This Desdemona was not presaging verismo’s melodramatic heroine, rather she was the Venus that destroyed Otello, and therefore she was a part of Otello himself. Mme. Vassileva’s quite powerful voice could indeed equate his presence. She was never his victim, as he himself was his victim.

Shakespeare’s Otello is of course black though current custom proscribes black face, but even so the complete whiteness of the cloth draped stage was in absolute conceptual contrast to Verdi’s moor dressed in brown robes, uniquely exotic among the otherwise Victorian clothed cast. The unit set of the first three acts was an abstracted old Globe wooden theater, abstracted shudders and a ceiling fan hinting a southern climate, simple wooden desks or benches placed to accommodate the actors’ moves necessary to inflame and expose Otello’s vulnerability.

Iago_Vratogna.pngMarco Vratogna (Iago)

In contrast to the Met’s massive Zefferelli, grand opera production, the Peter Hall production is an anti-Otello, the storm is only seen in the reaction of the chorus, the beauty of the evening star is realized on the faces and in the voices of Otello and Desdemona. Verdi’s opera became about Shakespeare’s words, his poetry and Otello’s tragedy, and not about the spectacle of nature’s destructive and intoxicating powers.

In the San Francisco staging Iago was embodied by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, small of stature, wily, a shaved head, an archetypical untrustworthy look. If Otello and Desdemona were abstracted black and white characters, Iago was real, and really mean, with strong TV drama body language, his powerful voice in grand theatrical contrast to his affected servile stance. He delivered his “Credo” as a shouted harangue, beautifully sung to be sure, downstage center directly at the audience. Chilling, and eminently satisfying.

South African tenor Johan Botha is a real Otello, vocally and temperamentally, a voice huge enough to overpower a melee of his soldiers and establish himself as the invincible warrior, with sufficient Italianate vocal gestures to supplicate the bacio from Desdemona, his hysteria and temper flaring all the while. It was all there in Verdi’s first act, and played out in the following two, Iago’s snakey treachery slowing engulfing Otello in the second act, the moor’s tormented third act soliloquy delivered sotto voce unmoving, leaning against an upstage column in dim light, marred only by over-excited clarinets and cellos in the pit. Finally in a brilliant moment of complex cowardice Otello suffocated Desdemona with a pillow,

If Cassio, though striking in his Victorian profile, was vocally over-parted (i.e. we needed more), Locovico was gratefully under-parted to veteran Don Carlo Grand Inquisitor Eric Halfvarson (no Adler Fellow here). Mr. Halfvarson, as the production demanded, created the power and spectacle of Venetian authority entirely by his voice and presence (and just one small banner of the Venetian lion). Iago’s wife Emilia was beautifully realized by Adler Fellow Renée Tatum, her servile demeanor unwavering until she unleashed our pent-up response to evil and tragedy, and became in those few lines one of the evening’s principal singers.

A scene from Act III

Teetering on the edge of mannered theatricality, the production made the fazzoletto almost a tongue-in-cheek topic. In fact all evening Mr. Hall’s slick theatricality demanded an admiration that competed with the dramatic honesty of Shakespeare and Verdi, or maybe it simply exposed the virtuosity of Verdi’s challenge to Shakespeare’s obvious theatricality. Whatever detractions one may conjure, Mr. Hall’s superb production can perhaps serve as a versatile platform for whatever resonances individual artists may bring to these iconic roles, open to the interpretive creativity of whoever may stage them.

San Francisco Opera’s excitable music director Nicola Luiscotti was in the pit. As we have well perceived this fall Mo. Luiscotti is smitten with creating effects, and there were all the obvious ones amplified, and many more, not the least of which was the aggressive virtuosity of the mandolin accompaniment to Desdemona’s second act entrance. Musically the production was indeed solid, but the music remained illustrative and theatrical, seldom penetrating the poetry. What contributions Mo. Luisotti may have made to the staging and the individual performances are not possible to know, but finally this theatrically brilliant evening was musically and emotionally cold.

Michael Milenski

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):