Ensconced on an aircraft carrier, SA’s Otello takes a different tack.

Adelaide Festival Theatre
October 25, 2014

 

Hosted by the State Opera of South Australia (with collaborators Cape Town Opera, West Australian Opera, Opera Queensland, NBR New Zealand Opera, and Victorian Opera), Simon Phillips’ production of Verdi’s Otello opens with nearly all hands on the decks of a 21st-century aircraft carrier.

 

The opening chord of the psychological thriller brilliantly sacrifices longevity for efficacy. Traditionally, it’s short, colourful and shocking. Then there’s this opening of Verdi’s Otello. It’s the same, but with added military tactic; a little something called “the element of surprise”. As the audience recovers, the gathering storm gives strength to the khaki-clad State Opera chorus who are in excellent voice with exacting diction that is praiseworthy throughout. The admirable first act Fire of Joy flows seamlessly into Iago’s Drinking Song. The military personnel stage a booze-a-thon (with selfies) that culminates in a well executed glassing. I look for the selfie shots on my @StateOperaofSA twitter feed at interval, to no avail. It’s a missed marketing opportunity.

Strategically choreographed chorus movements are uniformly efficient, although a couple of occasions when the precision is less than military stand out like a giant cannon on the foredeck; easily seen. However, their at-ease stance is convincingly military, and they solidly support this operation. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra helmed by the charismatic Brad Cohen give an energetic, impassioned, and sensitive performance throughout. They are literally and figuratively underpinning the ship, in a partnership role that sees them revel in the splendid score.

Dale Ferguson’s multi-level, masculine set is clever and offers much in the way of interest and perspective. Having spent time on an actual aircraft carrier, I’m not convinced the desired aim of claustrophobia is wholly achieved, but the CCTV style surveillance, (including a live feed), central stairs, and behind-wall viewing-without-hearing is innovative and effective. Spoiler alert for all you keen decoders of naval flag messages – the overhead colourful flags each represent one phonetic alphabet letter that, when flown from a ship, sends a communication. These ones spell out: “Welcome Venetian Freedom”; an extremely impressive attention to detail.

Miriam Gordon-Stewart shines as Desdemona, conveying innocence with grace. Her sense of foreboding and resignation towards her plight culminate in an exquisite and moving Willow Song and Ave Maria. The choice to change costume onstage here seems unnecessary and distracts, but perhaps speaks to her modesty. Her voice is wonderfully controlled, and shaded with a maturity that, at no cost to her musicality, suggests there are more complex roles in the future.

Otello, played by Bradley Daley, feels a little set adrift. From his famous arrival, he sounds thin, and without much in the way of authority. He finally releases the chows with his determination to kill Desdemona, and at this point, shows flashes of musical and dramatic brilliance. Overall, this mighty military man is simply not someone I am convinced Iago would be jealous of. Otello’s all-consuming love of Desdemona is unconvincing. The love duet is nicely sung, but the chemistry falls a bottle-of-rum short of a yo-ho-ho. The encounter, set to the most beautiful music, seems dramatically poorly conceived and runs aground.

Douglas McNicol is Iago. Before he even opens his mouth, he projects a character that ordered his dish of revenge several months ago, giving it time to be served with plenty of cool. When he sings, his voice drips with malevolence, with no compromise to his rich tone. The subtleties of facial expressions add intensity to the sociopath–politician–betrayer we all love to hate. See this show for McNicol’s performance alone; his second act Credo is a treat.

Splendid support comes from Catriona Barr as Emilia whose dramatic frenzy with passionate singing for her mistress’s plight convinces, and Bernard Hull as Cassio who sings a good drunk… and is also good sober. This is an enjoyable production of a fabulous score and deserves a look, if not quite a 21-gun salute.

Otello runs October 28, 30 and November 1.