Brown Theater, Wortham Center
10/24/2014 - & October 26, November 1, 4*, 7, 2014
Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Peixin Chen (Montano), Norman Reinhardt (Cassio), Marco Vratogna (Iago), Kevin Ray (Roderigo), Simon O'Neill (Otello), Ailyn Pérez (Desdemona), Victoria Livengood (Emilia), Thomas Richards (Herald), Morris Robinson (Lodovico)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (Conductor)
John Cox (Director), Johan Engals (Set and Costume Designer), Michael James Clark (Lighting Designer)
Houston Grand Opera Chorus (© Lynn Lane)
When the proper forces combine, Verdi's Otello is an unforgettable, riveting experience. Houston Grand Opera's current production, however, misses the boat in several areas. While there is much to enjoy, the numerous missed opportunities result in a frustratingly uneven operatic experience, unusual for this typically solid company.
Director John Cox and set designer Johan Engal's visual conceit - a concave stage apparently representative of Otello's warship - is confusing. The initial appearance is powerful, but it loses appeal as the opera progresses. Boito's directions are clear and descriptive about the settings, but many of these details are simply omitted, with the action occurring in the same visual frame. The simple addition to the set of a sparse bed in Act IV scarcely sets the appropriate mood. We are left wondering where the specified and iconographically significant prie-Dieu disappeared to. This disregard for important visual details effectively neutralizes much of the drama.
The musical execution is also unbalanced. Since his 2009 triumph in HGO's Lohengrin, Simon O'Neill's voice has become more powerful, but also more strident. There is a very apparent break in tone quality above the staff, where a physical mannerism of rocking back and forth on his feet seems to become the main means of vocal production, and the singing lacks the subtle shading that was so alluring in his Wagnerian hero. As an actor, too, his Otello is shallow, consisting of two affects: unflinching love for Desdemona and histrionic rage at her suspected infidelity. Boito and Verdi took care in crafting a complex character that develops gradually throughout their four acts, but O'Neill's performance reduces those nuances into a simplistic good-versus-evil duality.
A. Pérez (© Lynn Lane)
As a beautifully-costumed Desdemona, Ailyn Pérez's voice is solid. More importantly, she is an extremely convincing actress. She caresses her upper register beautifully, and smartly keeps some surprising colors hidden until the opera's final act, where her performance captivates from start to finish. At "Ah! Emilia, addio" her impending fate is palpable in a solid vocal outburst followed by a ravishing, controlled and harrowing morendo.
Marco Vratogna's Iago steals the show, as this character is wont to do. Some of Verdi's most arresting music was composed for this role, creating a villain that audiences love to hate. Vratogna's singing was solid at every dynamic level and in every register. The famous "Credo in un Dio crudel" was sung by a man obsessed, capped by stunning singing at the climaxes. Subtly nuanced mockery in scenes with Norman Reinhardt's Cassio made for a wonderfully complex characterization. It was a relief to hear Mr. Reinhardt in much healthier voice here than in Così two nights prior.
Patrick Summers coordinates Verdi's complex, continuous score convincingly, although there were uncharacteristic rough moments from the pit. The low strings at Otello's appearance in Act IV were particularly askew, especially following the finely played woodwind passagework accompanying Desdemona's Willow Song and Ave Maria. The HGO Chorus is stellar throughout, their forceful contributions to the first act raising unfulfilled expectations. In Act III, they combine with spot-on offstage trumpets and forthright brass in the pit as the Venetian dignitaries enter, and the effect is stunning.
A hiccup in HGO's otherwise stellar legacy of Italian opera performances was inevitable, and it's a shame it had to happen with such a great Verdi work. There is much to enjoy here, but audiences should be prepared for an uneven ride.
Marcus Karl Maroney