Otello on an aircraft carrier sails on a sea of orchestral pleasures if short of a proper captain at the helm.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth

February 11, 2014

If Verdi hadn’t been tempted back to the opera house at the age of 80 to compose Falstaff, there would probably be little dispute that he’d crowned his illustrious career with his treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello in 1887. Even then, it had taken ten years to persuade him to put pen to paper following Aida in 1871 and the writing of the music was to take him a further six years. Our gain though as each of Verdi’s final masterpieces are notable for the musical and dramatic advances that the elderly composer still had in him.

His co-conspirator was librettist Arrigo Boito, who also did the honours on Falstaff, and in both cases the younger man proved an excellent condenser of Shakepeare’s sprawling originals. In the case of Otello, he excised the entire first act and through a process of judicial pruning and refocusing (including the addition of Iago’s famous Credo and the removal of most of Shakespeare’s references to Othello’s colour) came up with the taut psychodrama that is Verdi’s opera. That tautness went on to be reflected in music that has scarcely a spare bar and a score that flows seamlessly from one episode to the next. And what a score! Innovative, colourful and thrusting it is truly the Italianate match for Wagner’s contemporary advances in the field of German opera.

Simon Phillips’ simply conceived but detailed production for WA Opera and the Perth Festival is a co-production with Cape Town Opera and a host of other Australian companies (Victorian Opera, State Opera of SA, Opera Queensland) and deserves to go down well wherever it travels. His relocation of the action to a contemporary aircraft carrier may sound like gimmickry run rampant but he’s far too canny and subtle a director for that. Dale Ferguson’s neat gunmetal grey set moves efficiently and includes plenty of details to help Phillips’ concept (like the CCTV screens that allow Otello to see but not hear Cassio and Desdemona).

The settings, above and below decks, gain enormously from the claustrophobic oppression of the military environ, and Otello becomes a drama of jealousy and rank rather than one of racial prejudice. Odd then that the tenor chose to ‘black up’ for this Perth staging – something that wasn’t deemed necessary for its premiere in South Africa last year, nor in Brisbane – a detail that had raised the odd eyebrow among the guest singers from the Cape Town Opera Chorus who were joining the WA Opera Chorus for this run.

Aside from the production, the chief glory here was the playing of the West Australian Symphony orchestra under Joseph Colaneri. The Tuesday night packed house was able to enjoy a first rate band in a musical interpretation that was viscerally energetic, exciting and detailed in an acoustic that is ideally balanced (eat your heart out Sydney Opera House). I missed the odd thing here and there – the mandolins got a bit lost in the Flower Chorus – but generally it was alloyed pleasure. Adding to this joyful noise were the enthusiastic singers of the WA Opera Chorus and their eight South African colleagues. From the thrilling stormy start, through the iridescent Fire Chorus (in Phillips’ concept, triggered by the flares from a successful bombing campaign), up to the pomp and circumstance of the arrival of the Venetian ambassador, this was an outstanding night of choral treasures. They’re a refreshing young bunch as well with bags of energy. There were lots of unobtrusive individual character touches like a nice moment where two of them took a ‘selfie’ during the riot and nicely done fight – one that ended in a nasty and effective glassing.

Against this backdrop the principal singers were a mixed bag. Chief among the offenders was the Italian tenor Antonello Palombi in the title role. His clarion voiced Esultate entrance boded well but it soon became evident that his instrument was variable, singing at times out of the side of his mouth, and with cotton wool diction in certain passages. The upper voice (excepting the extreme top notes where he was pinched) had some thrilling moments, bright and clear, but in general he substituted subtlety for melodrama and seemed unable to ally vocal passion with dramatic credibility –the cries of ‘Sangue, sangue sangue’ went for nothing. His acting-by-numbers style was, I’m afraid to say, old-fashioned and wooden.

As Desdemona, then, Cheryl Barker had her work cut out with a partner who scarcely gave her a look, preferring to sing straight to front 90% of the time. A lot of the role sat comfortably for her – the Willow Song and Ave Maria were beautifully executed with ravishing piano tones at times – but in other places she wasn’t ideally steady with a noticeable beat towards the top of the register when under pressure. Desdemona should sound warm at all times and Barker sometimes sounded more like an edgy Tosca. Still, she made a sympathetic character, despite having nothing much to play off.

James Clayton as Iago was the standout among the main singers. His tone was well suited to the role with an easy top and he was able to produce some gripping piano sounds in the upper voice when revealing his wife’s supposed adultery to the gullible Otello. His Credo was exemplary (descending red strip lights lending it a satanic glow) and his diction was the finest on the stage. In the first act he could afford to darken the tone and use the text to greater effect but as the night went on he built a character of considerable power, the evil more latent than surface, but none the worse for that.

The other two significant roles were well-filled. Henry Choo was a likeable Cassio with an easy lyric tenor that carried well and charm to spare. The performance was nicely detailed; it just needed to be toned down a touch here and there. Fiona Campbell made a supportive, uniformed Emilia although her warm, appealing mezzo was drowned out in the handkerchief quartet by the larger voices.

So, not everything on the aircraft carrier shipshape, perhaps, but by the end of the night I was surprised at how much I’d enjoyed an Otello without much of an an Otello to speak off. A credit, then, to the rest of the cast, chorus and especially conductor and orchestra. The production is travelling to Adelaide later in the year – on this showing, it’s well worth a visit.