Russel Thomas in the title role at LA Opera's 2023 production of "Otello". Credit: Cory Weaver.
Russell Thomas in the title role at LA Opera's 2023 production of Otello Credit: Cory Weaver.

The lights had barely dimmed and the ovation for LA Opera Music Director James Conlon faded before the opening chord of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello exploded from the pit like a thunderclap. Lightning flashed illuminating the apprehensive chorus as they took in the storm and the battle at sea that was raging. Then, with victory in hand, Russell Thomas as the mighty Moor, strode onto the stage and proclaimed, “Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar!” (Rejoice! The Muslim’s pride is buried in the sea!)

Three hours later, when the opera reached its murderous conclusion, a second storm arose in the form of a wave-like ovation acknowledging the commanding performance by Thomas, the heartrending fate of Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Desdemona, the swagger and deviousness of Igor Golovatenko’s Iago, and for Conlon, who had summoned the storm and masterfully helmed the ship.

Since 2020, as LA Opera’s artist in residence, Thomas appeared in a variety of roles­ but none provoked the excitement that surrounded Saturday night’s performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In 2018 he performed the role at the Hollywood Bowl in a concert version with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Saturday was the real thing.

After making his triumphant entrance, Otello disappears, leaving the stage for Iago to instigate his plot of revenge. It is an opportunity Golovatenko, a baritone with power to spare, did not squander. He revealed Iago’s  reptilian venom hidden beneath a facade of swaggering braggadocio and band-of-brothers camaraderie. Like a master puppeteer, he instigates a confrontation between the gullible Roderigo (Anthony León) and Cassio (the fine tenor, Anthony Ciaramitaro). It’s their drunken brawl that prompts Otello’s return. And for the first time we see Russell’s power as a commander of men.

Ciaramitaro and Golovatenko
Anthony Ciaramitaro as Cassio and Igor Golovatenko as lago | Credit: Cory Weaver

As the rioters disperse, Otello and Desdemona are alone for a beautiful love duet, expanded by a chromatic lushness clearly influenced by Wagner. Strangely, the production design by John Engels and lighting by Jason Hand eliminates the significant element of the emerging stars specifically referred to in the libretto (“the Pleiades are shining”). Fortunately, their absence was amply compensated by the glittering, interweaving lines of Russell and Sorensen.

In the second act, Iago’s venom begins to take hold and Otello’s state of mind turns toward jealousy and chaos. As directed by Joel Ivany (based on John Cox’s 2008 revival) Otello’s destruction is like watching a fuse burning closer and closer to an inevitable explosion. It is also in this act that Iago exposes his most demonic side in the aria “Credo in un Dio crudel,” (I believe in a cruel God), which Golovatenko delivered with villainous relish.

A series of choral numbers season the opera: the onlookers in Act 1, the adoring madrigal sung in honor of Desdemona in Act 2 and the arrival of the Venetian ambassadors in Act 3. In each scene the choral preparation by Jeremy Frank and the staging by Ivany worked brilliantly.

Thomas and Sorensen
Thomas and Willis-Sørensen | Credit: Cory Weaver. 

Like a watch being wound tighter and tighter, Thomas’s Otello gradually self-destructs to the point of total paralysis. And as the demons in his mind take hold, his vocal and dramatic power rise exponentially, contrasting with Sorensen’s innocent, plangently sung Desdemona. Her performance climaxed with  renditions of the “Willow” aria and Ave Maria that were heartrending. The final scenes were both visceral and horrifying.

Watching Shakespeare’s play or Verdi’s opera, one wonders, why is Otello so susceptible to Iago’s manipulation? Is he really that gullible? Thomas’s performance makes it clear that he and Iago share a kinship forged in battle, that he can never share with Desdemona. How many times has Iago saved Otello’s life and vice-versa? How could this man betray him? One could argue that the destruction of Otello’s love and trust in his closest friend is a tragedy unto itself.