Otello's strong performances and striking set make for serious start to Vancouver Opera Festival

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      By Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito. Directed by Michael Cavanagh. A Vancouver Opera production, as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday, April 28. Continues until May 6

      When Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito started to turn Shakespeare's Othello into an opera, their working title was Jago—or Iago.

      That gives you a clue to the importance of one of opera’s most conniving villains in the epic work—and to the success of the first mounting of Otello here in more than three decades.

      As Iago, the menacing, shaved-headed Gregory Dahl creeps around like a leopard on the prowl, lurking over every scene, stalking the formidable ramparts and stairs that cut through the bold set, barely containing his pleasure at Otello's torment. Furious that Otello has passed him over for the role of captain, Iago plots revenge, planting seeds of doubt about Otello's cherished wife, Desdemona, and ultimately destroying him with a single lace handkerchief.

      Dahl's Iago deftly works his targets' insecurities like a master, the best friend when he needs to be, the confidante who doesn't want to reveal to Otello what he suspects his wife is doing. With his effortless baritone, he turns "Credo in un Dio crudel" ("I believe in a cruel God") into a triumphant, venomous treatise.

      Not that Antonello Palombi's Otello isn't strong. Few singers can manoeuvre the demanding role, and the Italian performer, a true Verdi tenor, brings roiling torment to his powerful yet nuanced vocals. From his opening, rafter-shaking "Esultate!", the shout of victory that breaks through the orchestra's thunderstorm, he's strong right to the bitter, crazed-and-murderous end. No, Palombi is not a black performer—it's difficult to find any tenor who can handle the punishing role—but crucially for Verdi's rendition of the story, he has the real feel of an outsider, “the other”, trying to lead his Venetian troops.

      The show is a huge undertaking for the Vancouver Opera, the stage often filled to the wings with burgundy-and-gold-costumed chorus members. The orchestra is beefed up to 60 members and maestro Jonathan Darlington keeps up the tempo, finding nuance in the quieter moments and ramping up the recurring storm themes. Only at the beginning does the chorus struggle to find its feet amid the swirling score, one that sometimes sounds more Wagnerian than other Verdi works. Verdi is more concerned with using the complex score to express the characters' psychological turmoil here than with creating the showstopping arias of his earlier operas.

      Ultimately, Otello is probably an opera fan's opera, perhaps less accessible than a La Traviata, and arguably a difficult "first" experience of the art form. It’s long and dark, with the music telling the story here, not so much the physical action on-stage. Shakespeare fans might find it markedly more melodramatic and mannered than the play.

      And yet the performances are strong across the board, from John Cudia's dashing yet malleable Cassio to Erin Wall's fragile Desdemona. The latter is one of Verdi's meekest female characters, pious and subservient—today we'd deem her a victim of domestic abuse—but Wall instills her with the heavenly sweetness and purity the opera calls for, especially in the extended prayer-and-Willow-song of the final act.

      Gregory Dahl and Antonello Palombi in Otello.
      Tim Matheson


      Otello's other great strength is its striking sets and imagery by Erhard Rom, the designer who made such an unforgettable impact with 2010’s Nixon in China. He's been given the almost unimaginable task of creating a set that will work for both Otello and the contemporary Dead Man Walking (due to space constraints at the Queen E). But his blocky walled world works in wonderful thematic ways, suggesting forts and seawalls but also so much more. The opening is spectacular, with video projections of waves churning and crashing directly onto those surfaces, seeming to spray the chorus as they wait for Otello's ship. Chains hang ominously from above, a reference back to Otello's past as a slave, but also to the inner shackles that he carries; by the last act the towering grey walls enclose Desdemona in her bedroom like a prison. And a rich red damask backdrop echoes the characters’ costumes while also resonating with the anger and blood that will spill.

      The audience for this opera-fest opener doled out an enthusiastic standing O, and a smattering of crucial boos for Iago, which the charismatic Dahl played up at the curtain call.

      Otello is a serious way to launch the new Vancouver Opera Festival, a sign that the event means business. It’s traditional, grand in scale—and a decided contrast to the chic DJ Opera Bar and coolly crazy Paul Wong video-and-sound installation that await theatregoers in the Queen E. plaza. As a result, there was the buzz of a happening on the site for the festival's opening night—a buzz that, with any luck, will carry on like a long crescendo over the next couple weeks.

      Tim Matheson