Maestro Philippe Auguin took to the podium last night at Music Center at Strathmore, and it was as if he transformed his baton into a magic wand to give us an outstanding night of opera music. Giuseppe Verdi surely was smiling down from the heavens to hear his most emotionally stirring work, Otello, given such a powerful, clear, and emotionally moving rendering.
Auguin is a most vigilant keeper of the flame for classical Italian opera, and in the audience last night were many children from local Montgomery County Schools, part of a new initiative launched by producing company Maryland Lyric Opera to introduce the next generation to the art form. From the opening tempest at sea, Maestro cranked up the orchestra, and, with swirling images by Designer Sarah Tundermann projected onto two abstract canvases, themselves looking like angry clouds or lightning bolts, the kids were riveted. If they only remember this scene, I thought, and carry around the feel of the sound in their chest from this, their first opera, they will be forever touched.
Otello is based on Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, the story of a great general who “loved not wisely but too well” the beautiful Desdemona and gets caught up in a jealous tangle by the plotting, evil Ensign Iago, who unleashes a devastating and ultimately deadly inner tempest in Otello.
The tragic flaw in the lead character (as we are taught in school) is jealousy, and in Gregory Kunde, we see a performer willing to plumb the depths of that monstrous emotional hydra. Clutching his head in pain, staggering in torment, and at one point collapsing as if from the worst migraine or even embolism, he makes us feel for him even as we recoil from his lack of judgment and cruelty.
Okay, hold it, there is an elephant in the room. The story is also very much about the relationship between a Black man, or Moor, and a white woman. There are references throughout the original play and Arrigo Boito’s libretto to color and race. The lovers loved each other so much that they were willing to step out of the status quo and defy societal rules and their families to be together, which makes the ending all the more heartbreaking. The question hangs in the air (and with all due respect to the singer’s formidable abilities and history with this role): in this day and age and in our DMV community, MDLO, could you not have undertaken to find and cast a Black tenor in the role? Apart from acknowledging today’s concerns about equity and diversity, a whole dimension of the story gets lost — and ultimately it pales.
However, the company considers itself devoted to concert opera, and I suppose we are then meant to give it a pass. Thankfully, also for this reason, there were no attempts at blackface.
There is much other good here. David Gately manages, without help of any major production values, to give us the best stage direction of any MDLO productions I’ve seen. He not only makes each moment-to-moment count dramatically, but the moments also add up to a most satisfying whole.
Iago is one of the most loathed characters but also one of the most coveted and delicious roles in the canon. Two baritones who have put their considerable stamp on the role were in the audience at last night’s opening, the great Verdi singer Sherill Milnes and Javier Arrey, whose stunning interpretation I caught years ago under the baton of Maestro Lorin Maazel, and who, incidentally, was the instigator and lead of MDLO’s outreach to the schools, the Feel the Opera Initiative.
Mark Delavan is imposing in voice and stature. A true singer-actor, he dominates the stage in this performance. The man is a beast. One moment, his Iago is quietly pulling aside the lovelorn Rodrigo and, posing as his best bud, promising to help him score with the married Desdemona, and in the next, the man seems to conduct the entire chorus and orchestra in a rousing exultation welcoming the return of the triumphant hero Otello from defeating the Turks. (“Fuoco di gioia.”) He prances around the stage, dances mincing steps to articulate a certain musical ornamentation in the orchestra, then flings his arms in the air and waves on the entire chorus of singers, as if he alone commands the shaping of the sound with his massive, expressive hands. At once you know he is indeed master of the show and that Iago snorts power like a dangerous drug.
Delavan does something more: he shows us the cost and thus a multi-dimensional Iago who becomes a mirror image of the tormented Otello. He too is suffering and being eaten alive.
Eleni Calenos is a ravishingly beautiful Desdemona from her classic features and stateliness to her pure, liquid-as-quicksilver voice. Desdemona never wavers from her love for Otello, and Calenos embodies this devotion in the tenderest of moments as in the quiet duet “Gia nella note densa.” The whole audience may have wanted to ask her, as Otello does, for un bacio.
Desdemona and indeed all the four main characters build the evening to degrees of great and greater passion. When Patricia Schuman as Emilia, Desdemona’s Lady-in-Waiting, joins the other three on stage, the charge of the Act II quartet is high voltage indeed. While Otello wails about his heart being broken and his golden dream of love shattered, a desperate Desdemona begs forgiveness from her husband for whatever has so unhinged him. Emilia is frightened for her mistress and angry at her conniving husband Iago, whom she suspects is masterminding all this chaos. All the same time, Iago is gloating. It’s what opera writing can do at its best. But it’s also what makes the demands of singing Verdi so high. It takes four such singers as these to hold the clustered, competing emotions together in a single number and take the audience on an almost death-defying ride of sound.
Throughout the show, whenever the two male characters discharge their spleens, Desdemona grows more centered and still. It is a most effective dramatic contrast. But when everything at last comes crashing down, conductor Auguin brings all to Verdi’s intimate and quiet place.
The other singers in the cast are also to be commended. Yi Li brings his clarion tenor sound and pathos to the role of Cassio. As the lovelorn Rodrigo, Lucas Levy uses his plaintive voice and expressive face to create a portrait of a man duped and a pawn to everyone else’s plans for him. The seasoned and wonderful singer-actor David Pittsinger makes a welcome appearance and brings stateliness and lustrous low notes as Lodovico when law and order close in on the Moor, who has completely gone off the rails in front of everyone.
Chorus Master Husan Park has done a good job; the chorus sounds strong, but for youngins who were watching, take note. Basic choir etiquette insists you don’t twitch, shift your weight, or scratch your nose as choir members. In Strathmore being front and lined up in high balconies, with everyone in plain view, means inevitably someone is watching you. You do not want audience eyes traveling up from the mainstage action.
This Otello otherwise did all that opera should do — and all done with the human voice and live musicians — no flying tech gimmicks, car chases, or AI robots. Come experience the real thing. There is only one performance left, Sunday, March 5 at 2 p.m.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.
Otello plays through March 5, 2023, presented by Maryland Lyric Opera performing at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD. For tickets ($59– $150; children and students with ID, $10), call the Box Office at 301-581-5100 or purchase online.
Sung in Italian, with projected English supertitles.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional but encouraged.
Composed by Giuseppe Verdi,
Libretto by Arrigo Boito
Conducted by Philippe Auguin
Stage Direction by David Gately
Choral Master: Husan Park
The Maryland Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Gregory Kunde as Otello, Eleni Calenos as Desdemona, Mark Delavan as Iago, Yi Li as Cassio, Patricia Schuman as Emilia, David Pittsinger as Lodovico, Lucas Levy as Roderigo, José Sacín as Montano, and Geoffrey Di Giorgio as the Herald
Stuart Duke (lighting design), Sarah Tundermann (projections design)