Opera Review: Otello: A chillingly dark operatic treat from Vancouver Opera

Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Photo credit: Tim Matheson

A true test of an opera company’s strength is its versatility in presenting both contemporary and classical work. Vancouver Opera’s (VO) production of Otello truly demonstrates VO’s outstanding strength in this area. After seeing VO’s emotionally compelling Dead Man Walking, a contemporary opera set in 1980s Louisiana, it was impressive to see the company switch gears to Otello, which is set in late 16th century Cyprus.

It was no easy feat to present these two rotating operas during the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival. As large as the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is, housing two full-sized operas in one theatre is a rarely achievable feat. Thankfully, set designer extraordinaire Erhard Rom somehow managed to create a set versatile enough for the two very different operas. The multi-level platforms that served as prison watchtowers and an execution observation room in Dead Man Walking, was also able to do double duty as the doomed castle in Otello.

Erin Wall as Desdemona and Antonello Palombi as Otello. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Erin Wall as Desdemona and Antonello Palombi as Otello. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Watching this macabre opera, I felt transported back to the opera’s first opening night in Milan in 1887. The dim lighting, eerie shadows on stage, bone-chilling vibrato of Antonello Palombi as Otello, and grand 60-piece orchestra conjured up a sense of time transport.

The story, which everyone knows from Shakespeare’s Othello (the T was taken out for pronunciation purposes since the opera is in Italian) is predictable, as is the case with all classic operas and ballets. It’s a style that calls for over-the-top emotion, dramatic gestures and tremendous fanfare for every turn of events. And VO’s production delivered en pointe.

The larger-than-life score and intricate Italian libretto by Arrigo Boito was masterfully performed by the strong leading singers, VO Chorus, and orchestra led by Jonathan Darlington.

Gregory Dahl as Iago, and the company. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Gregory Dahl as Iago, and the company. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

The creepy atmosphere created by Rom’s set design and Gerald King’s lighting made the show seem like one unsettling dream. Palombi was stubborn, cruel and very dramatic as Otello – which was perfect for the role. The Italian tenor’s powerful voice is sensational and was such a pleasure to listen to – it’s rare to be treated to such musical magnificence.

Vancouver’s Erin Wall was an excellent counterpart as the ill-fated Desdemona. The control she had in her voice was remarkable – as demonstrated in her final aria when she prayed to the Virgin Mary. She was able to sing gloriously at full voice before receding back into almost a whisper, showing astounding vocal control. Her character’s painfully pathetic submissiveness to her husband’s degrading abuse was also quite heart wrenching.

Gregory Dahl’s Iago was fittingly sly and evil, and John Cudia’s Cassio was appropriately handsome, dashing and adorably dim-witted at the same time. As Emilia, Megan Latham was one of the highlights of Otello, with her strong stage presence, excellent vocal delivery and clearly conflicted feelings throughout the show.

From left to right: Dahl, John Cudia as Cassio, and Martin Sadd as Roderigo. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

From left to right: Dahl, John Cudia as Cassio, and Martin Sadd as Roderigo. Photo credit: Tim Matheson

Some of the biggest stars of this production were the costumes, which came courtesy of Opera de Montreal, with consultation from Parvin Mirhady. With such a large amount of singers onstage at times, it was great that the costumes always drew your focus to the main characters. For example, in the opening scene, the stage is crowded with villagers dressed in almost identical-looking (and very creepy) colourless outfits, while Cassio, Iago and Roderigo’s bold mid-evil genre costumes commanded your attention.

Likewise, Otello’s dark, macabre costume contrasted sharply with Desdemona’s pure and innocent white gown.  And Iago’s devilish personality was personified by his red cloak.

Everything about this show screamed horror and doom, and it was fantastic! VO’s Otello was the full classical opera experience. A truly grand, four-act tragic spectacle that kept audiences on the edge of their seats until the last fateful note.

 Vancouver Opera's Otello - Queen Elizabeth Theatre. No remaining performances.