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BWW Reviews: OTELLO Comes Into The Twenty First Century

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Saturday 25th October, 2014

The State Opera Company of South Australia is closing its season with Giuseppe Verdi's Otello, based on William Shakespeare's Othello, filling the Festival Theatre with some of the world's greatest operatic music. This updated version by internationally renowned Director, Simon Phillips, set on an American aircraft carrier somewhere in the Middle East, is a co-production of Cape Town Opera, West Australian Opera, NBR New Zealand Opera, Opera Queensland, State Opera of South Australia and Victorian Opera. Matthew Wild is the revival director for this production.

Most people would know the original storyline of Iago's plotting to bring down the war hero, Otello, by making him suspicious of his wife's fidelity, convincing Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Shakespeare's play makes use of the fact that Othello is a Moor as a racial basis for Iago's jealousy but, in this production, Iago is jealous of Cassio's promotion to Captain, by Otello, while he is overlooked and remains Otello's Ensign. Iago's fury is aimed at both Cassio and Otello. Otello, therefore, need not be Moorish and, in this production, he is not.

The performance begins with a bang, as the orchestra portrays the storm in which Otello is sailing back to the carrier. The suddenness of this explosion of music still manages to make the audience jump and emit a gasps of surprise as, although we know that it is coming, one never knows exactly when. Otello and his men return safely and in triumph, having beaten the Turks whom they are fighting, but Iago's discontent and lust for revenge is soon made clear.

In the title role is tenor, Bradley Daley, who does an excellent job of transiting from the confident warrior and respected commander of men, at the beginning of the drama, to a man filled with jealousy and rage, who loses all self-control in madness by the end. It is seen in every aspect of his performance, not just in the way that he subtly changes his voice to display the many emotions through which Otello goes, but in facial expressions and body language, too. His performance convincingly provides everything needed to leave Desdemona at a loss to understand why Otello's attitude to her has changed so much and so quickly.

Soprano, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, sings the role of Desdemona and takes full advantage of all that Daley gives her in his characterisation of Otello, to create a character who finds herself in a situation that she does not comprehend, and Gordon-Stewart delivers a whole range of emotional highs and lows as Desdemona if buffeted by Otello's accusations and jealousy.

Iago is sung by baritone, Douglas McNicol, who is always a favourite with Adelaide audiences. McNicol makes this role his own in a bravura performance, sitting his Iago like a spider at the centre of his web and dripping his poisonous lies and innuendos into the ears of his victims. Even when Iago is acting as a friend to those around him, McNicol still manages to add a sinister edge. So convincing was his performance that the final bows greeting him with huge applause for himself, mingled with booing for his very believable character.

Emilia, the wife of Iago and 'maid' to Desdemona, is sung by Catriona Barr, who successfully establishes her dedication to Desdemona as well as clearly indicating regret at her choice of husband in a performance that was very well balanced. Cassio, sung by Bernard Hull, and Roderigo, sung by Jason Wasley, are pawns in Iago's game, and they provide another two very solid performances.

Pelham Andrews, as Lodovico, and Thomas Millhouse, as Montano, also give strong performances. Minor roles can sometimes be a weak link, but not in the hands of singers like these, who treat them the same way that they would a lead role. This sort of commitment is one of the characteristics of this opera company.

A big highlight of this production is the superb work of the State Opera Chorus, although this is nothing new as their contribution is always impeccable. Every word is crystal clear and the harmonies wonderfully balanced. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, under Conductor, Brad Cohen, tackle Verdi's complex score with great skill and considerable understanding of the importance of the music in making up for the words of Shakespeare that have been left out in Arrigo Boito's pared back libretto.

The unusual set, designed by Dale Ferguson, transforms over and over with the use of a few sliding panels, a floor that is flown in, changing background scenery, and numerous pieces of furniture that seem to simply appear and disappear. Nick Schlieper's lighting design goes a long way to giving that cold, military feel and the red night time lighting is used to good effect, spreading as Iago sings his Credo, giving a Hellish feel to the set, suited to Iago's devilish plans. The vast range of military uniforms and other costuming is the work of Michael Mitchell.

There were, it must be admitted, a few times when Cohen, allowed the orchestra to get slightly too loud, losing a few words from the singers, but these slips were quickly brought under control and, no doubt, most people were reading the surtitles anyway, so would not have noticed.

Once again, the State Opera Company of South Australia is offering a superior production that is sure to please Adelaide's opera lovers and, with the updating to the current time, could well induce a few new people to attend. With only three more performances, though, rush for your tickets.

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From This Author - Barry Lenny