I preface this by stating that this review is for the performance on March 20, 2017. I would also like to recognize that this is just one performance of a six-performance run. In an ideal situation, I would attend every performance and write a detailed review of the overall work. As it stands, I can only go on my perspective of one performance.
A few months ago, I wrote about the brilliance that was LoftOpera’s “Macbeth.” Everything the company presented, from the musical and dramatic showcase to the electric atmosphere, was of the highest order.
The company is back at it again, showcasing why it is one of the finest operatic experiences in all of New York City.
Eschewing the rigid formality that has come to dominate the layman’s perspective of the art form, the company’s latest production of Rossini’s “Otello” was staged at The LightSpace Studios in the heart of Brooklyn. Walking into the space, the company projected a video on a wall that hit the viewer the moment he or she walked into the space. I personally walked into the theater right before the show kicked off, but my short impressions of the images I saw set the scene for the tragedy about to unfold before us.
Rossini’s “Otello” is rarely performed these days, though that was not always the case. In fact, the opera was quite popular in the composer’s day, with an alternative ending added in to preserve a happy ending.
But when Verdi decided to compose his own version of the Shakespeare’s drama, the genius of his creation was so great, that Rossini’s stood no chance.
These days the work is best-known for the Rodrigo-Otello duet in Act 2 “Ah! Vieni, nel tuo sangue,” a vocal spar between the two rivals of the highest order. And while in many respects, it is evident that Rossini’s drama does not hold a candle to Verdi’s (Among other things, Otello’s jealousy and desire to kill Desdemona develops rather simplistically in this opera, a far cry from the complex character development we see in Verdi-Boito’s version), there are still marvelous dramatic jewels that remind us why this work was so strong in Rossini’s age.
A Strong Modern Update
LoftOpera Music Director and Conductor Sean Kelly and director John de los Santos wisely connected Acts 2 and 3 after the interval, giving the drama a strong narrative drive. De Los Santos updated the opera’s setting to Venice in 1957 during the Economic Miracle, the period after World War II when Italy experienced a strong economic boost. Dressing the character’s in more contemporary garb certainly served as a strong reminder of just how timeless Shakespeare’s characters could be.
If there is one thing that Rossini’s opera sheds more light on than Verdi’s is the racism inherent in Otello’s society. Verdi makes mention of Otello as a moor, but his racial insecurity never reaches the same levels as Rossini’s, who at one point questions why he looks the way he does. De los Santos and the LoftOpera amplified this theme through their casting, with tenor Bernard Holcomb the only black male onstage. It was impossible to ignore his outsider status in this context, amplifying the themes inherent in the opera.
Of course, the more modern take on the opera also holds up a mirror to the audience, reminding us of the issues that remain prevalent in our society.
If there is one thing that I must emphasize, it is the immersive experience of LoftOpera. “Macbeth” had characters walking through the audience, but this “Otello” pushed the envelope further. At points, I had the action performed right in front of me, from Otello shaving prior to killing Desdemona to the leading lady and Rodrigo engaged in an emotional dispute. The tension was ramped up in these moments and the sense of dramatic immediacy and urgency could never be stronger. More importantly? There was no musical shortcoming as a result. You will rarely ever get that in any other operatic forum.
A Powerful Leading Lady
Musically, this was a rich production with soprano Cecilia Lopez, the dramatic core of the opera as Desdemona. While Otello is the title character, Desdemona is the object of desire for three men, all of them tenors. The fact that this production opened with Otello and Desdemona vowing fidelity to one another, furthered this dramatic emphasis on the character.
Lopez’s Desdemona was a tortured woman who despite her faithfulness to Otello is constantly worried about the impact her decision will have on others. Throw in the fact that she is constantly being followed and cornered in this staging and you have a woman who’s only real choice is to constantly be fighting for her own freedom. Lopez’s voice displayed a lighter quality in her opening scene with Emilia, “Vorrei che il tuo pensiero,” which emphasized her sense of powerlessness in the face of her difficult situation. But as the odds stacked against her, her vocal strength grew, her timbre showcasing a rougher quality that reached its dramatic apex at the close of the second act. During this section her coloratura runs grew more aggressive, her acting more frayed, displaying a woman truly living on the edge of an emotional precipice. De Los Santos cleverly had a doctor come on stage to check her pulse, emphasizing the character’s emotional breakdown. At the climax of the entire scene, she threw her entire voice into a cathartic E-natural, that expressed the pain and trauma of the character at the moment.
It was no surprise that her ensuing scene, the willow scene, “Assisa a’piè d’un salice,” saw her character spent, laying flat on the bed as she sang extended passages. Her voice had a fragile quality to it, though at some moments, you could sense it gaining in strength as if trying to reassert the character’s sense of strength.
The defeat was complete during the final scene as Lopez, in a bold dramatic move, discarded the beauty of her sound altogether as she implored death from her husband. She viciously threw the words “Uccidimi… ti affretta, saziati alfin crudel! ” almost spoken, ramping up the tension in the scene.
It was a revelatory performance from an artist that looks slated for a big-time career.
The 3 Tenors
In the title role of Otello was Holcomb, who has already made a name for himself in the world of opera. His Otello was a more rigid and stoic figure, the tenor standing and tossing off all of Rossini’s massive challenges with fearlessness. This was particularly evident in the opening aria “Ah sìm per voi già sento,” his voice delicate and flexible. He was romantic lyricism embodied. His emotional torture was far more subdued, giving his explosive outbursts even greater power. We could sense his violent potential slowly until it came to full force in that final scene with Desdemona. Weight crept into his voice as the night developed, though his coloratura runs were no less nimble or flexible as a result.
As Rodrigo, tenor Thor Arbjornsson had an elegant presence, his singing lavished with a seemingly unlimited resource of high notes. It was almost impossible to hear the tenor go through a passage of music without interpolating some stratospheric ornament, expressing Rodrigo’s excessive obsession with Desdemona and overall lack of emotional stability. One of the fascinating aspects of this opera is the contrast between the lovers fighting for Desdemona. In this production, Otello’s more subdued nature and sense of control are counterpointed by Rodrigo’s inability to show any restraint, which Arbjornsson was brilliant at portraying. His coloratura was far from ideal, the tenor struggling at times during his double aria “Che ascolto” and especially the famed duet “Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue,” Kelly constantly glancing over at the singer to adjust to him.
Meanwhile, as Iago, Blake Friedman was snake-like in his gaze and singing. More restrained than his tenorial counterparts, he kept his voice in the lower register throughout the night, emphasizing the darker nature of the character. When he did show off his upper range, it was during his duet with Otello, expressing the character’s triumph and overall power over the proceedings. He confidently walked about the stage, often in the background, emphasizing his manipulative nature.
Toby Newman was motherly and tender as Emilia in her scenes with Desdemona, her voice silky and smooth while Isaiah Musik-Ayala’s Elmiro was a looming presence throughout the proceedings with a booming sound.
Kelly drew solid colors from the orchestra for most of the night though the French horns seemed unsteady during major solos. Kelly managed swift tempi throughout the evening, driving the pace relentlessly, the sense of propulsion growing as the opera moved toward its stormy ending.
If you haven’t experienced LoftOpera, then, by all means, do it as soon as you can. As I noted in my “Macbeth” review, LoftOpera’s ambiance is one that you will never find with another opera company. There is a sense of vibrancy and relaxation that makes opera feel like a big communal family gathering. Throw in a top-quality artistic display and there is simply no reason not to immerse yourself in what this incredible company is doing. There are still three performances of this “Otello” on the 23rd, 25th, and 27th of March.
Here’s to many more successful productions that the company has in its future. On the evidence of this “Otello,” a work rarely performed in the US, this company might just be the one the opera world needs – one that can bring back long-forgotten works back to the forefront of culture through immersive experiences.