“Otello”: Opera Hong Kong, 14 October 2016

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Watching a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello in the current political climate can be profoundly depressing. It is hard to listen to Iago’s second Act Credo

 

I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image
and whose name I invoke in anger …
I believe with a steadfast heart
that the evil I think
and which emanates from me
is by destiny’s decree…

without a shiver of recognition and a sinking heart. A surfeit of glorious sound aside, Opera Hong Kong’s current production of Otello does little to relieve the foreboding. Rather than having Iago run away at the end once his deceptions are uncovered and he has lost, Director Maurizio di Mattia leaves him on stage, silently threatening his wife. His plans in ruins, Iago has sowed nothing but distrust and havoc, yet is still there, glowering.

Di Mattia also bucked what seems to be a rising trend of foregoing—for entirely entirely understandable reasons—the dark makeup that Otello has traditionally sported, feeling that it is necessary to underline Otello’s “otherness” and explain why, in spite of honesty, fidelity and competence, he is never entirely accepted by the society he has been called upon to govern. One is free to read contemporary parallels into that as well if one wishes.

Otello was of course selected not as contemporary political commentary but to close out the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. As such, it hard to think of a more appropriate choice, for Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito followed the original play so closely that the two are joined at the hip. George Bernard Shaw went to so far as to say that

 

rather than ‘Otello’ being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, it is ‘Othello’ that is a drama by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.

 

Carl Tanner and Valeria Sepe in Otello
Carl Tanner and Valeria Sepe in Otello

Opera Hong Kong has for several years been pushing the envelope of what is possible for western opera in East Asia. Some results were on clear display in last night’s performance. On hand was Carl Tanner, one of only a small number of world-class tenors than can actually sing the role, and as Desdemona, Valeria Sepe, a young Italian soprano clearly on her way up: two leads, one in the prime of his career, and one just starting, subtly mirroring their roles on stage. Otello’s “Venere splende” — Venus is radiant! — in the first act love duet could well have served as editorial comment. Tanner meanwhile brings personality as well as accomplished voice to one of the most challenging roles in opera.

The main roles were rounded out by Argentine baritone Matias Tosi, whose vigorously physical Iago was particularly vile. If the purpose of the baritone in opera, as Shaw also said, is to prevent the tenor and soprano from making love, Tosi not just succeeded but left considerable collateral damage.

The result of Opera Hong Kong’s role in the pump-priming of local talent was evident improvement in the depth and experience of the pool of local singers from which other roles were filled. Verdi, and Otello in particular, need top-flight orchestral accompaniment and the Hong Kong Philharmonic provided just that. The musical highlight of the opera for me has always been the third act chorus: here the sound swelled to fill the hall.

The production, shared with Opera di Roma, had enough glitz to satisfy, one hopes, those who place importance on the “grand” in “grand opera” while being simple enough not to draw attention to itself. The revolving set had elegant lines that focused attention rather drawing it away. The direction included specific choreography that appeared to give a nod to musicals.

At curtain call, all involved seemed pleased with themselves. They had reason to be.

This review is of the 14 October performance. A review of the 13 October performance with a different cast be found in in HKELD. Otello continues through 16 October. Baritone Matias Tosi, in an example of considerable fortitude, is singing all four performances.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books. He wrote the programme notes for this production.