Livermore Valley Opera (LVO) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and to open the season on Saturday, March 5, the company chose Otello, Verdi’s next-to-last opera. Otello is a challenge even for major companies, largely owing to the vexing problem of finding a dramatically convincing tenor who can adequately sing the punishing title role.
Consequently, it would be fair to say that opera fans everywhere bite their fingernails waiting for Otello’s first entry, which comes just five minutes into the opera. His ship is trying to dock safely in the midst of a terrible storm. Thunder and lightning split the sky, and the people of Cyprus watch from the castle walls, praying for his safe arrival.
At the Bankhead Theater, you could just about hear the sigh of relief when tenor Limmie Pulliam made his entrance. Everyone knew, from Otello’s opening declaration of victory, “Esultate!” that Pulliam has the goods for the role. He’s a genuine dramatic tenor, a singer with a large, burnished, baritonal sound. Pulliam can roar, he can sing sweetly, and he can simmer, all the while creating a dramatically believable character. He’s a big man who moves smoothly, with physical authority that projects Otello’s status as a heroic military leader.
He’s not the only hero of this production. Music Director Alexander Katsman leading a small orchestra that punched far above its weight, conducted an electrifying performance that sizzled from the stormy opening to the quiet, but shattering, close. He could occasionally have let the music relax and expand a bit more, particularly in the Act 2 love duet between Otello and Desdemona and in Desdemona’s Act 4 solos. But his conducting can hardly be faulted otherwise.
The distinguished bass-baritone Philip Skinner, a Bay Area favorite, sounded vocally rough at the outset, but by Act 2 was in splendid form. He gave a typically excellent performance as Iago, thundering while declaring his nihilism in the Credo and singing with chilling insinuation as he poisons Otello against Desdemona in “Era la notte” (It was the night).
In the 500 seat Bankhead, Pulliam and Skinner made a thrilling and sometimes vocally overwhelming pair in their revenge duet, “Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!” (Yes, I swear by the marble heaven). Soprano Elaine Alvarez, an impassioned, loving Desdemona, held the audience rapt with her gorgeous and affecting singing in Act 4’s “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria.”
Tenor Alex Boyer portrayed Cassio, of whom Iago is so jealous, with youthful impetuosity. The imposing bass Kirk Eichelberger was luxury casting as Lodovico, the ambassador from Venice. Joseph Meyers (Roderigo), Norman Espinoza (Montano), and Kevin Brown (a herald) all sang and acted more than ably.
Otello has its share of dramatic weaknesses, including Desdemona’s passivity and Iago’s close approach to mustache-twirling cliché. That this production is as convincing as it is owes everything to Layna Chianakas, whose direction was admirably straightforward and effective, highlighting the emotions roiling the stage without exaggeration. And all of the interactions among the principal characters rang true. Chianakas, a double threat in the opera, also sang Emilia, Iago’s long-suffering wife, who finally blows the whistle on him when it’s much too late.
The stage design consisted of a stepped platform, some columns resembling Greek or Roman ruins, and beautiful projections, from Fredéric Boulay and Oaktown Productions, distinguishing the harbor, the castle, the great hall, and the bedroom from one another. Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes, originally for Utah Symphony and Opera, looked great and added plenty of color.
The chorus of 25 sang accurately and with a good sound, following some uncertainty in the opening scene. The orchestral edition, which was provided by Jun Nakabayashi and Taconic Opera, worked well with the small forces, accurately reproducing the balances and overall tone quality of Verdi’s original orchestration.
You have two more chances to see this production, on Saturday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, March 13 at 2 p.m. Get your ticket before the performances sell out.