A tragic ‘Otello’ at Washington National Opera

The crowd cheered. 

We were on the Kennedy Center jitney to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop. I had just read aloud a text from my husband that said Howie Kendrick had hit a two-run homer to put the Nats up 3 to 2. 

Washington National Opera’s ‘Otello.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

The consensus among a few of us who’d just seen the Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppi Verdi’s Otello was that it had been the most cause for celebration we’d had up to that point all night. 

While I can’t fault the quality of the voices, I cannot find much to commend the show. This annoys me to the point of almost taking it personally. I had so much wanted to attend this show, that even though I had to be out of town on opening night, I arranged to review a successive performance. 

In the end, I honestly cannot recall a time I sat through an opera as stricken with boredom as I was during this Otello

Even the orchestra sounded bored. They put in a perfunctory performance under the baton of Italian maestro Daniele Callegari. They were often too loud, but as always in the Kennedy Center, for that sin I tend to fault the hall first, the conductor second.

Perhaps it is partly Verdi’s fault. There are no hit tunes that worm their way into your head like Il Trovatore’s “Anvil Chorus” or “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto. There’s no bracing overture like in Il Forza del Destino. There were no moments of glory where the audience spontaneously burst into applause. The lack of spontaneous appreciation also is something I cannot recollect ever experiencing in a WNO performance, or any other opera I have attended in a lifetime of opera-going.

George Gagnidze as Iago and Russell Thomas as Otello in ‘Otello.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

On the other hand, when done well, Otello offers us a chance to collectively contemplate how narcissism (Iago) and madness (Otello) can lead to the destruction of the innocent (Desdemona and Cassio), concepts we especially might want to pay attention to in our world at this moment in time. There is no need for hit tunes if there is respect for the text and the score. 

For an excellent example of this, watch the Met’s 1995 production of Otello with soprano Renee Fleming as Desdemona and Placido Domingo as Otello. Fleming and Domingo imbued their roles with compassion and tenderness for their respective characters and for each other. There is no over-singing, no over-acting, just pure gold. Their Otello is a tragic love story. 

This was just a tragedy. 

Which is why I believe the root of my disappointment in this production lies not with the singers, but with the American David Alden’s direction. It skewed toward explicit gestures and histrionics rather than relying on the power of the words and music of Verdi and his collaborator, librettist Arrigo Boito, to communicate this Shakespeare classic’s inherent darkness and pain. 

There was a lot of melodramatic wall-hugging by the leads, even when it meant running off to the far corner of the stage to do so. The chorus and supernumeraries seemed pole-axed, trying not to look at their feet as they stepped in unnatural rhythms. When American tenor Russell Thomas as Otello gave a startling eye bulge and chest grasp to convey surprise, I wondered if he had meant to channel Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, or if he had just been given bad direction. That was a shame because Thomas can really sing, and has a classic tenor top reminiscent of Richard Tucker that without all these other distractions might have thrilled the audience into tossing out a few bravos. 

Also puzzling to me was the stark lack of tenderness and compassion for Desdemona, sung by American soprano Leah Crocetto, as she lay dying. American mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel’s Emelia stayed as far from her mistress Desdemona as was possible, which mystified me. 

Given the heroic power of her voice, especially at the top, I think Crocetto was miscast in this role. That would not have been insurmountable if she and Thomas had been directed to use more nuance. Instead, they seemed like two unstable people, screaming their roles over the orchestra and lacking chemistry. Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Iago was fine, although he and Thomas also did not seem to connect much.

Russell Thomas as Otello in ‘Otello.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

The drabness of the production didn’t help: Gray, dull, morose. Rather than a castle, the set looked like a prison. The fire pit built into the floor was the niftiest bit of set and costume, the stagecraft of designer Jon Morrell. It managed to lend a little bit of intrigue when the flames cast an outsized shadow of Otello looming over Desdemona before he murders her. Otherwise, Adam Silverman’s lighting was disadvantaged by Alden’s bleak vision throughout.

The costumes were somewhat modernized but uninspired, confusing even. The double-breasted brown leather jacket worn by Gagnidze’s Iago, looked more 1987 compared with the 1787 Hamilton-inspired uniform worn by American baritone Zach Borichevsky’s Cassio. Roderigo, sung by American tenor Alexander McKissick, looked like an Edwardian dandy in his white suit. Why was Chinese bass Wei Wu as Lodovico and his entourage made to walk with canes?

Mounting a canonical production such as Otello is always an opportunity to review the present in the context of history. Despite – or perhaps because of – its pretense and sometimes silliness, opera as the so-called church of the performing arts arguably has the most power to celebrate humanity, to inspire audiences to face their demons and angels, to be authentic. Every time we witness a work good enough to be considered a classic, we should learn something about ourselves. The cynical effect of this production was to make it seem more like opera for opera’s sake, which is to say, a waste of resources. 

And really, that is the real tragedy, since the artistic staff at WNO has demonstrated more than once, such as with its American Opera Initiative, that they know the true value of opera.

Also in this performance was American baritone Hunter Enoch as Montano, and Spain’s Claudia Aquero Marino as the solo dancer. Choreography was by Maxine Braham from the UK.

Running time: Approximately 3 hours with a 25-minute intermission

Otello by Washington National Opera plays through November 16, 2019, at the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or go online.


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