Last night, May 23, 2013, West Bay Opera demonstrated again how a small opera company can present a big opera. Try as I may, I can’t think of anything negative to say about their production of Verdi’s Otello. But how do you begin to write a review when you want to rave about all aspects of the production? I can’t think of anything better than the fundamental instructions for writing an essay: start at the beginning – continue until the end – stop.
So I’ll begin with the overture. Only it was really a prologue, rather than an overture because the curtain went up with the first note to reveal the stage filled with 32 chorus members on a fantastic set representing the harbor-front of the Venetian garrison at Cyprus circa 1500. Our view is dimmed by a scrim on which is projected a scene of a violent storm – scudding clouds, flashes of lightning, and driving rain. Kudos to the visual design team of Set Designer Peter Compton, Costume Designer Callie Floor, and Lighting Designer Steven B. Mannshardt.
Meanwhile, the crowd is swaying in unison as if driven by sudden gusts of the storm, first one way then the other – sometimes individuals or small groups. And they are singing, sometimes in individual voices, sometimes as an entire chorus, describing what is happening at sea and bringing us up to date on the story. Sound Designer Tod Nixon does a fantastic job of providing back-stage sound effects from moaning winds to deafening thunder crashes, all perfectly coordinated with the motions of the crowd.
Congratulations to him, to the chorus Co-Directors Bruce Olstad and Carl Pantle, and to all 34 chorus members (Jim Armstrong, Georgianna Askoff, Jackson Beaman, Joanne Bogart, Richard Bogart, Martin Case, Will Corvino, Bruce Cozzini, Michael Crozier, Tom Ellison, Kristin Genis Lund, Inna Gitman, John Graham, Chris Hawks, Terry Hayes, Lisa Hmelar, Jay Iness, Claire Karoly, David Kirby, Peter Lawthers, Alexandra Lopiano, Amber McDonald, Leigh Madeline Nelson, Mark Nelson, Andrew Nickell, Erwin Oertli, Liz Patterson, Virginia Phelps, Vadim Rivkin, Philip Schwarz, Jenissara Sumiri, Theresa Whitney-Corvino, Diane Yeramian).
All of the above would be tremendously effective as a prologue to Shakespeare’s play, but this is a Verdi opera and the orchestra is playing his exciting storm music. Any one of the stage video effects, the stage audio effects, or the orchestra’s rendition of the musical score would convince you that a storm is raging.
Director Daniel Helfgot and Conductor José Luis Moscovich have put the three of them together in perfect synchronization, and the effect is mind-boggling. And that’s just the prologue!
The storm draws to a close, Otello (David Gustafson), the Governor of Cyprus is safe, and a celebration begins. Iago (Philip Skinner) appears. He wastes little time showing us his true double-dealing character telling the audience that he hates both Otello and Cassio (Nadav Hart) Otello’s newly appointed Captain because he thought himself more worthy of the promotion. In subtle pursuit of revenge, he first promises to help Roderigo (Adam Flowers), a soldier (not overly bright) in his carnal desire for Otello’s chaste wife Desdemona (Cynthia Clayton). In a separate dialogue he persuades Cassio to drink a toast to Otello and then to keep on drinking. Next, Iago entices Roderigo and Cassio into an drunken argument leading to a drawing of swords. Before either can draw blood, Montano (Michael Crozier), Otello’s faithful Lieutenant and former Governor of Cyprus intervenes, trying to restore the peace. Both drunks start to defy Montano but Iago pulls Roderigo back “let someone else do your dirty-work,” as Cassio and Montana begin one of the best-choreographed sword fights I’ve ever seen on an opera stage.
Cassio wins the duel, injuring Montano but not fatally. Otello appears, sees the injured Montano and Cassio still holding his sword, shows part of his complex nature by immediately jumping to the conclusion that Cassio is the guilty one, and demotes him on the spot. Desdemona appears, disturbed by the clamor. Otello sends Cassio off in disgrace, tells Iago to see to Montano and then go into town and restore order, and tells the townspeople to go home and go to bed.
Otello and Desdemona are left alone on stage where they sing a beautiful love duet to end Act I.
Rather than continue a detailed synopsis of the action, I’ll talk about the wonderful cast of performers on stage in Palo Alto. Philip Skinner has a physically imposing presence and a bass voice to really chill you. His bio in the program includes an imposing list of previous roles all over the world, but this was his first role with West Bay Opera. Early in Act II he is completely convincing as he sings his frightening Credo:
David Gustafson has an equally impressive résumé and was entirely convincing as Otello. He is no stranger to WBO, having previously appeared as Calàf in Turandot and as Radames in Aida, so I expected a great performance and I was not disappointed. He brought out the Moor’s tender side in the earlier love duet. In Act II Scene 1 Iago cleverly plays on the paranoid jealousy which, along with his tendency to jump to conclusions, constitutes Otello’s “fatal flaw” of a tragic hero. Gustafson captures all of this in his acting, and his tenor voice is a perfect fit with Skinner‘s booming bass.
Among all the musical forms which constitute opera, my favorite is the duet, and among all duet combinations a well sung male duet really resonates with me. At the end of Scene 1, Otello swears vengeance against Desdemona for her supposed infidelity, first as a dramatic solo, but then Iago joins in and wow! The only comparable moment I know of is the friendship duet in Verdi’s Don Carlo. But that moment was emotionally simple since both men are sincere in their profession of friendship. Here, Otello naively believes Iago to be his friend and ally, whereas Iago contemptuously thinks of Otello as his dupe.
Cynthia Clayton is the third principal singer – new to WBO, but with an outstanding résumé all over the United States and Europe. She portrays Desdemona as a total contrast to the two men –
innocent, naïve, and completely devoted to Otello. She sang beautifully in the first two acts – solos, duets, the quartet in Act II Scene 1, and the massive finale of Scene 2, but she really came into her own in the haunting Willow Song and Ave Maria that opened the final act. Shivers ran up and down my spine each time she repeated the chorus: Salce . . . Salce . . . Salce – each repetition quieter and softer than the one before, and followed by a plaintive echo from Peter Lemberg on the English horn.
This sad but beautiful note seems like a good one on which to end my review. Except to say that if you love good opera and live anywhere near Palo Alto, you owe it to yourself to come to one of the two remaining performances: Saturday June 1 at 8:00, or Sunday June 2 at 2:00. There are a handful of good seats left, but don’t waste any time before getting your tickets.
I should also mention that West Bay Opera has done something new: the production is joint with Festival Opera in Walnut Creek. The sets, the costumes, the director Daniel Helfgot and all the Principal Artists will be the same, but the conductor, orchestra, and chorus will be different. Performances will be at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA, Friday June 28 at 8:00, or Sunday June 30 at 2:00.
WEST BAY OPERA 221 Lambert Avenue
Lucie Stern Theatre 1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto CA 94306 650.424.9999
All photos by Otak Jump – arrangement and cropping by Philip Hodge.