Gustavo Dudamel Navigates LA Phil Through a Stormy Otello

Jim Farber on July 17, 2018
Gustavo Dudamel with the LA Phil | Credit: Sam Comen

Bright lights flashed across the dome of the Hollywood Bowl representing lightning. A percussionist pounded on a metal sheet to bring forth the thunder. But the mightiest force on stage Sunday night was Gustavo Dudamel, who stood at the center of this operatic maelstrom to conduct a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello. The performance was a dry run for his conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Dec. 15.

Complete concert performances of opera have become a yearly tradition at the Bowl and this Otello combined a powerful cast of soloists with the full strength of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus.

As the audience stowed their picnic baskets and sipped their wine Verdi’s storm broke on stage. Then, out of the tumult tenor Russell Thomas, with all the strength of a commanding general strode on stage and proclaimed, “Esultate!” (Rejoice).

Russell Thomas played the title role | Credit: Fay Fox

For the next three hours there was a great deal to rejoice about. Thomas (who will appear in San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of Roberto Devereux) began as a tower of strength then gradually shattered under the devilish manipulation of Georgian baritone, George Gagnidze as the Moorish general’s trusted brother-in-arms, Iago.

Thomas is a formidable Otello. As an African American, he genuinely looks the part with an heroically-scaled tenor that more than once brought to mind the ringing tones of Plácido Domingo in his signature role.

 Perhaps it was nerves, but early on Thomas’s upper register sounded clenched. But after the dulcet “Tristanesque” duet that ends Act I, Thomas’s performance galvanized the drama. From that point on, it was an all-in performance that conveyed the power and the emotionally conflicting elements that drive Otello to his doom.

Throughout the performance Gagnidze took delight in spinning his sinister plots, planting seeds of jealousy and mistrust, and serving the evil god he worships. His duets with Thomas, particularly the rousing Act III climax, were memorable.

George Gagnidze played Iago

Julianna Di Giacomo (a graduate of the Merola Program) possesses an impressive voice that can project dramatic volume with clarity and when necessary turn poetic and lyrical. Her Desdemona captured the tragic innocence and confusion of the character, ending with a soaring rendition of “The Willow Song” and “Ave Maria,” that produced the largest ovation of the performance.

Giacomo was ably served by Jennifer Johnson Cano in the role of her handmaiden, Emilia. Her darker amber tone blended well with Giacomo and took on a surprising strength in the final scene when Emilia realizes the way she had been snared in Iago’s web of treachery. The supporting role of Cassio was ably sung by Guatemalan tenor (and Operalia medalist) Mario Chang.

Julianna Di Giacomo

But it was Dudamel who truly was the master of this performance. He has an innate feel for the passion of the romantic repertory, as well as an operatic understanding of dramatic flow, emotional conflicts, shadowy interludes, and when it’s time to pull out all the Verdian stops.

It was a team effort that combined a superb performance by the LA Phil musicians, accompanied by resounding strength from the Master Chorale and Children’s Chorus prepared, respectively, by Grant Gershon and Anne Tomlinson.

Earlier in the week, Dudamel led an all-Bernstein program that combined orchestral works with Broadway show tunes. It was a sellout (15,000 plus). The crowd for Otello was considerably smaller, but the opera they experienced was even more impressive.