Pacific Opera Victoria’s Otello impresses from the start

What: Otello

Where: Royal Theatre

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When: Continues tonight, Oct. 21, 23, 25

Rating: 4 1/2 (out of five)

 

There’s something pleasing in the simplicity of Shakespeare’s Othello. A man is tricked by a villain into believing his wife is unfaithful. He becomes enraged and kills her. Then he kills himself. Curtain.

The tale is streamlined even more in the hands of Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito. A play of 3,500 lines is trimmed to 800. The action moves quickly, in no-nonsense fashion. As David Byrne once sang: “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.”

Pacific Opera Victoria is not fooling around with its fine new production of Otello (the ‘h’ disappears in the opera version). Strong leads, confident direction and bold design have resulted in an invigorating revival of the opera many consider to be Verdi’s greatest.

Thursday’s performance impressed from the outset. The opening scene, in which townsfolk await the arrival of Otello’s ship amid a terrible storm, is a challenge for any opera company. Yet under Glynis Leyshon’s stage direction, we’re convinced, thanks to black-and-white video footage showing closeups of giant waves and strobe-propelled lightning flashes. The effect is simultaneously abstract and literal — and very powerful.

In this scene, the chorus, awaiting the return of their victorious hero, sang stirringly: “The universe agonizes!” The Victoria Symphony, conducted by Timothy Vernon, goosed the excitement along with brass flourishes, cymbal crashes and the swell of strings.

Otello is set in a Cyprus seaport in the 15th century. As well as being an admired general in the Venetian army, Otello is a Moor, and therefore an outsider. (In this production he has a swarthy complexion rather than the traditional black facepaint). His underling is Iago, the personification of evil, who fills Otello’s head with lies about the unfaithfulness of uber-faithful Desdemona.

The POV has a real find in Kristian Benedikt, a Lithuanian tenor who has performed Otello worldwide. Benedikt is a young and dynamic Otello, singing with power and dramatic heft while still managing to mine the music’s melodic beauty.

Particularly moving was his Ora e per sempre addio, in which Otello says farewell to peace of mind as suspicion takes over. Benedikt is also a good actor. His descent into the madness of jealousy — punctuated with agonized mutterings and even swoons — was convincing.

There’s a notably well-conceived scene in which a murderous Otello first appears in Desdemona’s bedchamber. We encounter him initially as an apparition, barely visible behind a translucent curtain (Guy Simard’s lighting in all scenes is spectacular). The effect was truly chilling.

Throughout, this Otello exudes a powerful, primal sense of drama — it’s far from a stand-and-deliver affair. Fight scenes, accentuated with loud sabre crashes, seem truly dangerous.

More significantly, director Leyshon and the creative team present a cohesive vision of a pared-down, even minimalist drama. Designer Peter Hartwell has created a set that recalls old-world Europe, with classical arches and metal railings. Yet the look is also oddly modern. Buildings are stripped of detail; monumental columns have a coarse texture suggestive of contemporary industrial chic. It brings to mind the chilly, other-worldly buildings found in surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

The emphasis on Otello’s bare-bones essentials also surfaces in the death-scene finale. A strangled Desdemona is garbed in virginal white; Otello, dying on the floor beneath her, is in black. What could have been cheesy Italian melodrama (this scene also features Desdemona singing even after she has apparently died) was moving and powerful. Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley is a fine Desdemona. Her rendition of the familiar Willow Song was lovely, perhaps even the night’s high point, with Bradley revealing a lush, sweet timbre. Yet her Desdemona is no pushover. When Otello accuses of her being a prostitute, she passionately rejects his denunciation. Here, Bradley’s voice took on a thrilling huskiness.

Baritone Todd Thomas, who impressed in POV’s production of Das Rheingold last year, is a superb Iago. We need the character to be a larger-than-life baddie. And Thomas, who has a powerful, shaggy-browed stage presence, brings the goods. He seemed evil incarnate while delivering his “credo” — a super-villain’s nihilistic rant.

While a powerful singer, Thomas is more than capable of bringing out his character’s subtleties. Some of Verdi’s most delicate music is found within Iago’s serpent-like suggestions to Otello, delivered by Thomas like a lover’s whispered entreaties. (This is, by the way, an ironic parallel to Otello and Desmona’s love duet earlier on — murmured declarations of affection wrapped around exquisite melodies).

How good was Thomas? He was good-naturedly booed at curtain call. Bravos followed, but this was testament to the villainous effect he had on the opening-night audience.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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