Opera Review: A Timeless ‘Otello’ for All from Nashville Opera

4-9-14 Otello 023In the worlds of theater and opera William Shakespeare and Giuseppe Verdi are, among their other accolades, the masters of tragedy. The opera Otello is a work by Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito that distills the Bard’s story of passion, love, jealousy and hate into four gripping acts.

4-9-14 Otello 031Nashville Opera General and Artistic Director John Hoomes knows the tale is timeless, whether it’s told in 1603, 1887 or 2014. He signals his acknowledgement of that timelessness in his company’s current production when we see soldiers in modern desert camouflage battle dress uniforms (part of Costumer Coordinator Pam Lisenby’s usual excellence; the same of course goes for Sondra Nottingham’s wigs and make-up) at the start of Act I – no retreat to period here, but a quick and coherent advance on the notion that Otello belongs to our age as much as to any other.

4-9-14 Otello 008On Peter Dean Beck’s appropriately minimal set – a strong story with fine singer-actors needs little adornment; the great contrasts in Barry Steele’s lighting design provide plenty of tension to that wonderfully spare scenery – we meet the leading players and quickly take their measure. This opera is one some companies shy away from because it requires three powerful leads for the characters of Iago (Verdi initially wanted to title his opera with the villain’s name instead of he who loved not wisely but too well), Desdemona and Otello. Hoomes’ sharp eye and ear have cast this Otello with a brilliant top-billing trio.

4-9-14 Otello 020 AThose three are baritone Malcolm MacKenzie as Iago, soprano Mary Dunleavy (in her Nashville Opera debut) as Desdemona and tenor Clifton Forbis (a Belmont University grad) as Otello. Separately – such as the Act IV “Willow Song” in “Piangea cantando nell’erma landa” where the silence throughout Polk Theater after Dunleavy sings (to use the English translation) “Willow, willow, willow” is testament to the artist’s total command of artistry and technique, Mackenzie’s devilish relish as Iago sings about a cruel God in Act II’s “Credo in un Dio crudel” and Forbis’ palpable anguish as he falls to the ground at the end of Act III – they are riveting; together – such as the Act I “Già nella notte densa s’estingue ogni clamor” love duet between the Moor and his new wife and “Si, pel ciel marmorero guiro” oath duet where Iago and Otello agree to destroy the falsely accused Desdemona and Cassio (tenor Jason Slayden) – they are unforgettable.

4-9-14 Otello 033In addition to Slayden there’s top-notch support from mezzo-soprano Amy Oraftik as Iago’s presumably long-suffering wife Emilia, tenor Zac Engle as Iago’s partner-in-crime Roderigo and bass-baritone James Harrington as Lodovico and baritone Jeffrey Williams in the roles of former Cypriot governor Montano and the messenger-bearing Herald. (Note: Oraftik, Engle and Williams are 2014 Mary Ragland Young Artists at Nashville Opera – the future holds great promise for those three.) Their singing and acting is equally good; the same can be said for the Nashville Opera Ensemble overseen by Chorusmaster Amy Tate Williams, aided and abetted by Coordinator Michael Rutter’s supernumeraries in creating the living backdrop of a Cyprus where celebrations and conflicts go hand-in-hand (with fights once again sharply choreographed for Nashville Opera by stage combat expert Eric Pasto-Crosby).

4-9-14 Otello 019Conductor Christopher Larkin, Concertmaster Pamela Sixfin and their 41 Nashville Opera Orchestra colleagues know how to let each passage unfold in the suspenseful, keep-them-wanting-more fragmentary style that makes Verdi’s penultimate opera (only Falstaff remained before the composer’s death in 1901) such a breathtaking experience.

Hoomes and colleagues give us rich human conflicts without any tricks or affectations; here believable acting and gorgeous singing are vitally tied to a solid emotional core. Nashville Opera’s Otello is tragic, passionate, entertaining and inspiring; it is opera for all.

4-9-14 Otello 029Nashville Opera’s presentation of Otello, sung in Italian with English translations, concludes today (April 15) at 7 p.m. in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater (505 Deaderick St.) There is a free Opera Insights preview one hour prior to the performance in the theater led by Director John Hoomes. Tickets (starting at $26) are available at the TPAC Box Office or online at nashvilleopera.org.

*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).