‘Otello’: Pittsburgh Opera brings back Verdi’s masterpiece
Pittsburgh Opera will correct a glaring absence in its repertoire when it presents Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” for the first time in nearly a quarter-century at performances starting Nov. 8.
“Otello” is one of three operatic masterpieces Verdi wrote after he “retired.” (The others are “Aida” and “Falstaff.”) It is based on William Shakespeare’s play “Othello,” about a Moorish leader of an Italian city-state at the height of his powers who is brought down by the underling Iago’s shrewd plot that incites unjustified jealously of his young wife.
Pittsburgh Opera will present “Otello” at performances Nov. 8, 11, 14 and 16 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The Nov. 14 performance will start at 7:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than Friday-night performances had in the past.
“The most amazing thing about ‘Otello’ is how organically the piece flows,” music director Antony Walker says. “Verdi has reached the stage in his 70s, where he’s such a master of his craft that it’s all linked together so seamlessly. From the first thunderclap of the storm, you’re completely captured by the forward motion of the opera.”
The conductor is struck by the opera’s melodic and harmonic sophistication, which serves his lifelong concern with “tinta,” color.
“This piece has its own color, emotional color and romantic color,” he says. He points to the opening scene, which combines the function of prelude, storm and chorus into one and is harmonically uncentered until Otello’s ship is first seen approaching.
It is a special delight for stage director Kristine McIntyre to work on “Otello” because she studied Shakespeare at Oxford University in England. She is far from alone in believing that Arrigo Boito’s libretto is the best adaptation of a Shakespeare play for the operatic stage.
“When one is working with great source material based on Shakespeare and a very good adaptation, we’re already ahead of the game,” she says.
A key element in her characterization of the drama is an age difference between Otello and his wife, Desdemona.
“I think Otello is a middle-aged warrior who never thought he would have this great love in his life. Desdemona, who is much younger, is his last chance,” McIntyre says. “But this also helps us understand why he would (be susceptible to thinking), wrongly, that Cassio, who is Desdemona’s age, is having an affair with her.”
Tenor Carl Tanner loves “Otello” but is looking forward to playing the title role with extra anticipation after working on the piece with Pittsburgh Opera.
“What’s different that I like about this production is that we’re actually delving into the characters,” he says. “I know that sounds like what you should do, but in two of the three times I did it before, it was just the music on the page.”
He agrees with McIntyre’s view that Otello is much older than his wife, in his 40s while she’s in her 20s.
“He is a jealous man. We are all jealous,” Tanner says. “It’s brought on by insecurities. He was a great warrior, great thinker, great poet, but he’s insecure just like any other human being. Within this opera, that brings about his downfall.”
Soprano Danielle Pastin finds Shakespeare’s play helpful in understanding her character Desdemona, who she’s singing for the first time.
“We had to read the play in school, but in rereading it, I was reminded of how strong Desdemona is,” Pastin says. “Unfortunately, we don’t get a lot of the back story in the opera. The play put into perspective why it takes her so long to realize that something is terribly wrong with Otello. But it is also a reflection of her strength that she loves this man and is fighting to keep things together.”
Her favorite part of her role — apart from the last act, which includes the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” — is the second act “at the start of all the handkerchief business (the linchpin of Iago’s plot) because it’s really fun to sing. It’s rock-star operatic singing.”
As a baritone, Anthony Michaels-Moore is used to playing villains, though Iago is in a class by himself.
“We tend to have the most interesting and colorful music,” he says. “It isn’t just about beauty of sound. It’s about intelligence and color and making the villain as multifaceted as possible. The beauty of this particular opera is there are so many opportunities for vocal color and imagination.”
He says the wickedness of Iago is magnified because we don’t know what makes him tick.
“We know he’s been passed over for promotion, but that isn’t justification for the terrible plot he unleashes,” Moore says. “The element of the unknown makes him fascinating, frightening, sort of like Hannibal Lecter.”
Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].