Seeing Dorset Opera at the end of their two week Summer residency at Bryanston School’s Coade Theatre was a revelation, both in terms of the extremely high quality of production and in what can be achieved with an astonishing 10 day rehearsal period. One would expect to have to make concessions for these conditions but none were necessary, especially for soprano Josephine Barstow’s directing debut with a flawless Tosca.
The theme that connects Tosca and Otello is, of course, jealousy and the company drew some strong parallels between the two works. Scarpia brings attention to the connection himself by likening the Attavanti fan to Othello’s handkerchief, and Iain McGregor’s attractive, adaptable set, shared between the two productions, had Scarpia’s study dominated by a huge painting of Othello with Desdemona.
Barstow's superbly controlled and detailed production was hugely impressive from every angle. Lee Bisset, terrific as Sieglinde at Longborough last year, was a pert and beautifully focused heroine and Adriano Graziani (Welsh believe it or not) a ringing and triumphant Cavaradossi. Swarthy Phillip Rhodes was a bit on the young side for Scarpia but is sure to mature into the role and become a formidable interpreter. Altogether these were performances that, even allowing for the small auditorium and good acoustic, wouldn’t be out of place at Covent Garden.
Traditionally staged, Dame Josephine’s production was full of insight and clarity, with strong casting throughout. There was no final fling from the battlements, Tosca instead stabbing herself and crumpling onto her lover’s body (Desdemona was to meet a similar end, knifed by Otello later in the day). Phillip Thomas’s conducting thrilled from beginning to end.
Given that Otello is a more demanding and difficult work to get right, Anna Gregory’s production of the Verdi wasn’t as consistently excellent, although the final act was every bit as focused and moving. There were signs elsewhere of the rough edges that one might have expected from a project produced under these circumstances. Balance was occasionally an issue (Robin Stapleton conducting), with “Esultate” drowned out and the end of Iago’s Credo suffering similarly. There may have been a slight sense of the orchestra tiring after an exhausting fortnight, culminating in three performances of Otello and two of Tosca, but that was probably only noticeable when seeing the shows back to back.
The staging was again traditional (Blandford Forum perhaps not yet ready for flights of Aldenesque imagination). Ian Storey is an experienced Otello, not least for having sung it in Los Angeles under Domingo, where he must have picked up a trick or two. Not particularly Italianate, he’s a commanding presence with all the heft one would expect from a La Scala Tristan. Luca Grassi's voice was a half size too small for Iago but he had bags of oily charm and drove the action convincingly. Stephanie Corley as Desdemona (fresh from playing the part in Graham Vick’s innovative Birmingham production) grew enormously in the fourth act, poignant in the Willow Song and with a wonderful stillness for the Ave Maria.
The large amateur chorus, expertly drilled by Nicolas Mansfield, shone in both productions.
Roderick Kennedy, Artistic Director of Dorset Opera since 2004, is attracting names and producing work here that puts better publicised companies to shame. You have to be quick to catch them, as their summer season is here and gone in a flash, but for anyone travelling from further afield, the journey to rural Dorset is enormously rewarding.
- Simon Thomas