In 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.
Nashville 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.
On 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.
Those 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.
In 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).
Conductor 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.
Nashville 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.