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Otello: Power and Grace

West Bay Opera and Festival Opera

May 24, 2013

OtelloAny regional opera company that can convey the power, grace, and genius at the heart of Verdi’s Otello deserves gratitude and respect. Hats off to West Bay Opera, whose co-production, with Festival Opera, of Verdi’s masterpiece won over virtually all who saw it on opening night, May 24, in the far too confining acoustic of Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre.

Conducted, in Palo Alto, by WBO General Director José Luis Moscovich, this Otello was a team effort from first note to last. With notable forward thrust from the pit, the opening scene, strongly directed by Daniel Helfgot, positioned the large and well-rehearsed chorus amid a windswept landscape inundated with fog and lightning. Thanks to Steven Mannshardt’s excellent lighting, Peter Crompton’s appealing sets, and Tod Nixon’s sound designs, the scene resembled, in colors and staging, a crowded Brueghel painting. Most amazing of all, Helfgot managed to so animate his tightly packed chorus that even though they had no space to move around, singing and action never seemed static.

OtelloRegional companies may not have huge budgets for lavish sets, but Crompton’s colors, and Callie Floor’s opulent costumes made the production seem grand. Attention to detail and contrast were key. Visually, the production was a gem.

Opera, of course, is predominantly about the music. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t see so many orchestras mount concert versions of operas. While we have yet to hear from Festival Opera’s orchestra, chorus, and Music Director Michael Morgan, who perform the production on June 28 and 30 in the far more opera-friendly Dean Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, the West Bay forces did a fine job in their first of four performances (May 26, June 1, and June 2 remain).

Bravos to co-chorus masters Bruce Olstad and Carl Pantle for ensuring that the chorus sounded so good. No section blustered or faltered, and while one soprano voice consistently dominated her section, it was admirably produced and a pleasure to listen to.

Moscovich’s tempos almost always seemed right on target, and the winds of the orchestra, especially in Desdemona’s final scene, made especially beautiful sounds. The only problem, and a major problem it was, was the first cello, Kris Yenney, whose intonation was so bad at the start of the Act 1 love duet, and so iffy from there on, that every time the two cellos emerged, I discovered myself bracing for the next series of wrong notes. Thankfully, they did not come at the end.

OtelloMoscovich and Morgan scored with their principals: tenor David Gustafson (Otello), soprano Cynthia Clayton (Desdemona), baritone Philip Skinner (Iago), and tenor Nadav J. Hart (Cassio). Skinner, who emerged first, towered over everyone onstage with his extremely physical, commanding voice and persona. Every aspect of his portrayal, including his sneer as he invariably sang from one side of his mouth or the other, engaging movements, and size and power of his instrument, reflected a career as a major artist who finally made his Metropolitan Opera debut earlier this month.

Gustafson gained in surety and power as the opera progressed, reaching his height in his superb duet with Skinner, “Si pel ciel,” in the second act. Perhaps he over sang, because some hoarseness intruded at the opera’s tragic end. While he has modulated his voice on other occasions, here it was a case of power over beauty. It was a performance to admire, but not to love.

OtelloAlthough Clayton’s soft singing in the opening love duet lacked ultimate control, she came into her own as the evening progressed. After proving herself a superb lyrico spinto with thrilling thrust and glorious high notes, her softer “Willow Song/Ave Maria” established her, first and foremost, as an artist. Singing with supreme grace, she paced unaccompanied passages beautifully, with a touching command that drove the poignancy of her final prayer straight into the heart. Brava. Had Moscovich only followed her lead and paused a little more before the orchestra’s last entrances, the scene would have been perfect.

The young Hart sang quite well. Power and command are still developing, but the lovely quality of his voice, and the sweetness and innocence he brought to his role were endearing.

In smaller roles, tenor Adam Flowers (Roderigo) was so plagued by allergies that his voice was hoarse and weak. This became a big problem in the Act 2 quartet, where voices were unbalanced, the chorus blasted away, and either someone or something in the orchestra lost their footing in the middle section. But with understudies only available for Skinner and Desdemona, you can’t fault him for sticking with it as best he could. Mezzo-soprano Michelle Rice (Emilia) and bass-baritone Matthew Lovell (Lodovico) sang very well, and baritones Michael Crozier (Montano) and Jay Iness (A Herald) dispensed their lines with aplomb.

Taken as a whole, this was one of the finest productions I’ve seen from WBO’s forces. At a time when regional companies across the country are struggling for financial support, combining forces with Festival Opera seems a winning combination. Here’s hoping this is but the first of many successful co-productions.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.