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Opera Company’s ‘Otello’ (2nd review)BY: Robert Zaller 10.05.2010
The show went on without a serious hitch as the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s Iago, Mark Delavan, sang from a wheelchair, serendipitously adding a new dimension to his otherwise invulnerable character. Verdi’s Otello, unlike Shakespeare’s Othello, is more archetype than flesh and blood; nonetheless he is an imposing figure in this, Verdi’s finest opera.
Otello. Opera by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by Arrigo Boito, from Shakespeare; Robert Driver directed; Corrado Rovaris, conductor. Opera Company of Philadelphia production through October 15, 2010 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. (215) 893-1018 or www.operaphila.org.
Verdi vs. ShakespeareROBERT ZALLER
The Opera Company of Philadelphia’s staging of Verdi’s penultimate (and, for me, his finest) opera, Otello, is ambitious and largely successful. The cast, headed by Clifton Forbis as Otello and Norah Amsellem as Desdemona, is a strong one (Allan Glassman sang the October 3 performance); and the orchestra, under Corrado Rovaris, was in much better form than when I’d last heard it.
Paul Shortt’s set design was outstanding, and Drew Billiau’s lighting, as usual, was striking and inventive. Elizabeth Braden drilled the robust chorus, which opens the opera and makes its crucial first statement.
Shakespeare has certainly inspired far more music than any other author, though for a while in the early 19th Century Goethe gave him a run for his money. He’s exerted much less impact on the plastic arts, which is surprising when you think about it: Why not try a bust of Hamlet? Nothing can beat the plays themselves, of course; but Otello, despite the inevitable takedown of Arrigo Boito’s libretto, makes as good a case for transposing the Bard into another medium as any work has.
No, Otello is definitely not Othello, and not only because the words of the text are mostly different. Opera heightens certain elements and flattens others.
Worm of jealousy
In Verdi and Boito, the focus is on the worm of jealousy as the most destructive of all emotions, indeed as the most humanly destructive force there is. It’s the emotion that links both Iago, who suffers from it himself in the opera, and Otello, to whom he willfully spreads the contagion. The difference is that Iago reacts to jealousy by destroying the man who inspired it, but Otello reacts by destroying himself. Of course, he kills Desdemona as well, but as the entailed condition of his own self-destruction.
We are accustomed to thinking of Iago as the villain of pure ego in the plot, but there is a sense in which Otello is the greater monster. He kills pure innocence because its image has been sullied for him; Desdemona really exists for him only as his projection, his possession.
Verdi can make this point as Shakespeare, for whom Othello is truly human, does not, because operatic depiction can simplify, isolate and highlight as stage drama cannot. Shakespeare’s Othello soliloquizes, but Verdi’s Otello sings. We see Othello ensnared by jealousy, but Otello almost literally becomes it, for example in the great third-act aria with its insistent repetition and transformation of that chilling four-note figure that strikes more deeply into the soul than anything else Verdi ever wrote.
What saves Otello from simply being an embodiment of jealousy, though, is his awareness of what’s happening to him. He is wary of jealousy, knowing how susceptible he is to it, and at one point, as he is being fatally infected with it, he sees Iago fully as a devil. Were he to have killed him in that moment, one thinks, he might have saved himself; but of course he cannot do so, for his realization comes only as the infection takes hold, and he becomes Iago’s dependent— his slave— in the instant of understanding.
Shakespeare’s Othello experiences such a moment with Iago, too, but it’s charged with doubt, for suspicion is the first symptom of jealousy, and thereafter clarity is no longer possible. Verdi’s Otello, the archetype, sees his tragedy as Shakespeare’s Othello, the victim, never can. This condition renders Shakespeare’s character, although titanic in his fall, human to the end.
Verdi’s Otello, on the other hand, is almost mechanical in his vengeance; this is what embodied jealousy does. To be sure, Otello, like Othello, demands his “proofs.” But having drunk the poisoned draught, he knows he will accept them.
A conventional Machiavelli
Verdi’s Iago is also far cruder than Shakespeare’s deeply mysterious villain; he is, in fact, a conventional stage Machiavelli, boasting of the “cruel god” whose destructive will he enacts. He is a gleefully bad man, which Shakespeare’s Iago, for all the pleasure he takes in his own wiles, never is.
Verdi invites us to hate Iago but never, unlike his Shakespearean counterpart, to fear him. His function, despite his preening, is simply that of a plague-bearer; Iago possesses no depths to worry us, and his disposition at the end of the opera is an afterthought.
Otello does excel the way a medieval morality play might: in exhibiting vividly one of the seven deadly sins. Shakespeare’s Othello is consumed by jealousy; Verdi’s Otello becomes jealousy. He is, certainly, tormented by the thought of having to kill the thing he loves; but there is never any doubt, as in Shakespeare’s Othello, that he will do it.
Mark Delavan, as Iago, gamely performed his role from a wheelchair on opening night, having been operated on for a torn meniscus earlier in the day. This surgery was, obviously, a tremendous demand on his vocal resources, but he not only brought off his part with aplomb but also added a symbolic dimension. Verdi’s Iago boasts of his invulnerability, but Delavan’s wheelchair obliged him to display human frailty. It added something to his character that neither the libretto nor the production envisaged.
This circumstance required a good deal of last-minute blocking, which the cast carried off with a minimum of distraction. A few light changes went awry, and the violins scraped in one passage; but all in all, the performance suffered no serious hitch. That’s much to the credit of all concerned.♦
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