With Verdi and Wagner both born in 1813 and Benjamin Britten in 1913, Opera North is spending much of this year in celebratory mode. The company kicks off in style with Giuseppe Verdi’s demanding late masterpiece, Otello, adapted from Shakespeare’s play.
Arrigo Boito’s adaptation stays surprisingly close to the original, even keeping the main elements of the strange ending where Iago survives (for the time being, at least). However, the story is a simplified, pacy version of Shakespeare’s, with the opening Venice scene removed (no Brabantio), the opera exploding into instant life with the storm that nearly wrecks Otello’s ship in the approach to Cyprus. Iago expresses his enmity for Otello immediately, and the plot’s afoot from the start.
Boito and Verdi balance the three main characters – Iago’s Credo removes the mystery of his motivation and places him at the heart of the action, Desdemona dominates the fourth and final act – but also reduces the individuality of the less central characters, Roderigo, Montano and so forth. Tim Albery’s direction and Leslie Travers’ designs place the opera, inoffensively if unproductively, in a U.S. Navy base of the 1940s and all those uniforms may help to spread confusion, but many of the parts remain well-sung and robustly presented ciphers. This is even partially true of Cassio (Michael Wade Lee) while the excellent Ann Taylor has to wait until her urgent impact on Act 4 to register fully as Emilia.
The three central characters all receive intelligent and committed performances. Ronald Samm has the presence and physique for Otello, but in the earlier scenes is powerful without the glow of triumph. From his Act 2 duet with Iago onwards, his default position relocates to somewhere between fury and agony, his singing expressive and tormented. I may reveal traces of old-fogeydom here, but I don’t enjoy the modern tendency (in serious plays and operas) to boo the “villain” at curtain call and it seemed particularly inappropriate for David Kempster, “honest Iago” as ever was, a fine performance vocally and dramatically with not a hint of a leer. Elena Kelessidi posed something of a problem for first-night critics: a body of opinion suggested that her voice is past its best, but grudgingly admitted the quality of her Willow Song and Ave Maria. I heard her at the second performance and, if she took a while to communicate emotionally, she sang beautifully and prepared for her death with sumptuous grace.
And this only leaves Richard Farnes’ inspired conducting. His orchestra (chorus, too – limited opportunities after the opening, but always exemplary) rejoices in a score of remarkable variety, with intense power, dynamic contrasts and superbly detailed and subtle playing.
Otello runs at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 16 February. For more information visit http://www.operanorth.co.uk/