Eleanor Wood is reviewing Opera Australia’s Sydney Winter season with guidance from professional critics, Opera Australia’s own music staff and writing professionals.
Simon O’Neill is a force to be reckoned with
Review by Eleanor Wood
Opera Australia’s revival of the 2003 production of Otello is magnificent. German director Harry Kupfer has created a bold and deeply moving production of Verdi’s 1887 masterpiece.
Set in the mid-20th century, the set comprises a red and black staircase, perilously tilted toward the audience. A large statute of the god Atlas stands in the centre, heightening the themes of power, status and morality. Revival director Rodger Press uses the staircase set effectively to establish the shifting tensions between the three main protagonists; Otello, Desdemona and Iago. As Harry Kufper says, “You have all the problems of the world in these three characters.” Occasionally the impact of the bold staircase set becomes a little overbearing. It doesn’t easily translate to the some of the more intimate scenes, such as the bedroom scene in the fourth act.
The opening choral sequence showcases Verdi’s colour and expression, and the Chorus convey Verdi’s score with a magnificent wall of sound. Led by conductor Christian Badea, the Australian Opera Ballet Orchestra gives a thrilling reading of Verdi’s score, as they create thunderous storms, military fanfare, soaring melodies and Otello’s inner turmoil.
Aesthetically, this is a sumptuous production. Costume designer Yan Tax uses a largely monochromatic palette for the chorus, allowing Desdemona and her maid Emilia to stand out in jewel tones.
As Otello, acclaimed heldentenor Simon O’Neill is a force to be reckoned with. He sings with great clarity and power in this relentlessly demanding role, and gives an impressively physical performance as he descends into despair. His voice is brighter than the heavy tenor sound one might expect in this role, but this by no means diminishes the impact of his thrilling high notes and sensitive phrasing.
Italian baritone Claudio Sgura towers as the scheming villain, Iago. The agility and warmth Sgura sings with makes him a masterful deceiver; switching seamlessly from feigning concern as a trusted ally, to sheer contempt for Otello. Fueled by bitterness and resentment, he sings in Act 2 “I believe in a cruel god, who created me like himself.”
As Desdemona, Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian appears to be in total control of her instrument. Her voice has a sumptuous tone, effortlessly placed and immensely powerful when required. Her sincerity and loyalty is clear throughout her performance, particularly in the exquisite ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’. It would seem difficult to believe that the singer only came to the production with little more than a week’s notice.
Jacqueline Dark is excellent as Emilia, singing with fierce conviction. Other notable support comes from James Eggleston as Cassio, David Corcoran as Roderigo and Pelham Andrews as Lodovico.
Premiering in 1887, Otello isone of Verdi’s last operas. The composer agreed to return to the world of opera composition only after being coaxed out of retirement by friends. After seeing Opera Australia’s latest offering of this Verdi classic, you’ll be glad he did.
WHAT DID THE OTHER CRITICS SAY?
“If you want to see and hear the very pinnacle of Italian opera in an excellent production with an outstanding cast, I urge you to go.” – Limelight Magazine
“The New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill commands from the minute he steps on stage. ” – The Guardian
“Four and a half stars” – Sydney Morning Herald