Esultate! Sarasota Opera can exult in its new production of “Otello.” This gut-wrenching chronicle of evil incarnate is Verdi’s retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy, but, with librettist Arrigo Boito’s assistance, it’s even more powerful and poignant than the playwright could have imagined.
It was just four years ago that the Sarasota Opera House had its massive renovation and re-opening. One of the achievements of that renovation was the enlarging of the orchestra pit. And it’s that expansion that made this season’s production of Verdi’s “Otello” possible.
Still, it’s not just the enormous and spectacular instrumental forces in the pit and the seeming cast of thousands and brilliant choral sound on stage that reaffirm the notion that live opera is more high definition than anything we see on the screen. It’s the singers that Artistic Director and conductor Victor DeRenzi has amassed for this production and the supple, believable staging by Stephanie Sundine (once an operatic Desdemona, herself) that bring this tragedy into our souls.
Those powerful opening notes Verdi wrote take us, like a great novel, smack into the uproar and tumult of the Cypriots, waiting through the storm for their hero and leader, the moor, Otello, to return from battle. His opening line, “Esultate!” tells us he’s defeated the Turks, but it’s the terrible web of intrigue, lies and jealousies on shore that lie in wait to defeat him.
One of the most demanding and daunting roles in opera, Otello requires vocal strength, stamina and resilience, and Rafael Dávila, a tenor well-known to Sarasota Opera audiences over the years, now is the embodiment of Otello. He has grown into a vibrant, masterful singer with power and presence, and his Otello is believably characterized and brilliantly sung.
Sean Anderson, another Sarasota stalwart, did a magnificent job last year as the good and courageous John Proctor in Robert Ward’s “The Crucible.” Some of that goodness is still with him as Iago, the conniving, malevolent genius of evil, but the text, music and trappings of the role eventually manage to erase the singer’s innate sweetness, and we begin to see Iago and not Sean. His strong baritone is showing some rough edges at the very top, but his Iago is well sung and, as he slithers his way into Otello’s psyche, we begin to see what could, in a few years, be a portrayal of great strength. His “Credo,” (written by Boito, not Shakespeare) filled with pure hatred and malevolence, was almost too beautifully sung to be believed. But Anderson shows great potential to be truly terrifying. Iago is the quintessential Judas, bestowing kisses like a snake and then stepping back and basking in the turmoil and terror.
Maria D’Amato is a stunning Desdemona. Her demeanor and voice radiate innocence and love but, beneath that purity and goodness, we see courage, strength and the kind of faith that’s steadfast even though she knows she’s about to die. Her Fourth Act “Salce” (“The Willow Song”) and “Ave Maria” were sung with the kind of control and radiance that Verdi must have heard as he wrote these exquisite pieces. And her two moments of pure fear for her future — when she cries out to her friend, Emilia, and just before Otello strangles her — were positively bone chilling.
Heath Huberg’s Cassio, another pawn in Iago’s woven web of deceit, was well sung and acted. Huberg is a light tenor and served as an excellent foil to Dávila’s powerful sound. Cynthia Hanna, a Studio Artist, was a caring but knowing Emilia, but she came across as more of a servant than friend to Desdemona. We forget that she is married to Iago and knows his deceitfulness better than anyone.
The smaller but still important roles of Roderigo (Mathew Edwardsen), Lodovico (Jeffrey Berbuan), Montano (Stephen Fish) and a Herald (Dimitre Lazich) were portrayed and sung with suitable strength. And, although the chorus didn’t have a chance to bask in the applause in a curtain call, the singers and chorus master Roger Bingaman should be commended for their rich sound and stellar performances.
Once again, the orchestra, under DeRenzi’s vigorous and knowledgeable direction, was impressive. From the offstage trumpets to the heady woodwind choir led by the English horn in the “Salce,” they were dramatic and dazzling. So was the lighting, deftly designed by Ken Yunker, and the stunning sets, especially the lattice work in Act Two, devised cleverly by David P. Gordon.
We must remember that this, perhaps Verdi’s greatest opera, is “based” on the play by Shakespeare, so the acting is as important as the music. In this production, it all came together as these two great men of the theater would have wanted.