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Review: WNO's Superb OTELLO at the Kennedy Center

Review: WNO's Superb OTELLO at the Kennedy Center

In a city full of dastardly characters, ranking one above the other can be tough. But for the next two week's there's no competition with George Gagnidze's Iago in Washington National Opera's (WNO) Otello. Giuseppe Verdi's penultimate masterpiece is brought to its intense glory in a production filled with magnificent performances and crackling with dramatic fervor.

Based on Shakespeare's classic play of the same name, the opera tells the story of the governor of Cyprus Otello (Russell Thomas), the beautiful love of his life Desdemona (Leah Crocetto), and his ensign Iago's plot to tear them apart. Rife with manipulation and jealousy, high emotional stakes, and deeply-troubled characters, Otello is the type of story that lends itself perfectly to opera. At its heart is a love story, and one man's quest to use jealousy to ensure that a happily ever after does not happen.

Now sometimes in opera, as is also the case in musical theatre, the librettist doesn't receive the credit they deserve. While frequently billed as Verdi's Otello, librettist Arrigo Boito must be equally recognized. His respect for Shakespeare's characters and ability to acutely capture, with pinpoint precision, not only their emotions, but insights, are the reason this opera is recognized as a classic. Boito is able to convey grand emotions in intimate scenes without it seeming like overkill. Usually in opera one gets broad strokes, whereas with Otello those same strokes are written in such a way that we are brought into the character's confidence.

No two characters capture this better than Iago and Desdemona. Making an impressive WNO debut, Gagnidze is manipulative, cunning, and tormented as Iago. His rich baritone voice is at its zenith during his internal monologue in Act II, where we see just how far his jealousy will drive him. Toying with Thomas' Otello, Gagnidze's Iago turns in a performance Frank Underwood would be proud of. He's vile and charming, intensely focused and unapologetic.

By contrast is Crocetto's beautiful and innocent Desdemona. In scenes both intimate and small, and expansive and tragic, she captures the stage and your heart. There are two moments in particular which standout, showcasing Crocetto's great range. The first is the Act One scene with Otello, where he and Desdemona recall how they fell and love. While in Act Four we see a different emotional spectrum as Desdemona confronts her fate.

Thomas turns in a serviceable performance as Otello. It isn't that this tenor isn't up to the role. Anyone who saw him as Don Carlo knows he can turn in a powerful performance. What was missing was feeling. Again, he's a perfectly fine Otello. But compared against Gagnidze's Iago and Crocetto's Desdemona, he seemed outmatched and overshadowed.

Rounding out the cast is Zach Borichevsky as Cassio, whose drunken actions set the opera's story in motion, and Deborah Nansteel as Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's friend. Borichevsky, making his WNO debut, turns in a fine performance. However, it is Nansteel's Emilia who's quiet strength serves as the show's conscious. We see moments and flashes of it in Act Two, but it is in Act Four where Nansteel takes full control in calling attention to the treachery and tragedy taking place.

David Alden's straightforward direction and Jon Morell's sparse set design means that this production relies heavily on Verdi's score and Boito's libretto. Considering the genius of both, that's quite all right. While we may miss the grandeur of large operatic sets, Alden and Morell work to focus our attention on the triangle of fates between Otello, Iago, and Desdemona. The result is that this production feels quite intimate, allowing us to indulge not in the setting but the story. Sometimes in opera, the set overtakes the story, here that is not the case and thankfully so.

Maestro Daniele Callegari returns to the WNO for the first time in almost a decade and what a return it is. Verdi's menacing and haunting score rises from the pit, filling the Kennedy Center Opera House with a sense of foreboding. Helping to capture those moments is Andrew Cutbush's lighting design and use of shadows. Perfectly measured, the effect captures the menace of the score and cunning of the characters.

If there is any higher praise to give this production it is this - WNO's Otello captured the audience's attention. Not an easy task considering that this reviewer saw the production at the same time Game Seven of the World Series was taking place. It is a tribute to a stellar production by the WNO, the magnificent performances of Crocetto and Gagnidze, and a brilliant collaboration by Verdi and Boito.

Runtime is three hours with one 25 minute intermission

Washington National Opera's Otello runs thru November 16th at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets, please click here or call (202) 467-4600.

Photo: (l-r) Zach Borichevsky (Cassio), George Gagnidze (Iago), Wei Wu (Lodovico), Russell Thomas (Otello), Leah Crocetto (Desdemona) in WNO's Otello. Credit: Scott Suchman.

From This Author - Benjamin Tomchik

Ben is an avid theatergoer who has seen more than 350 musicals and plays.  Some of his most memorable theatrical experiences include: accidentally insulting Andrew Lloyd Webber at a performanc... (read more about this author)

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