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Theater/Opera Review (LA): Otello by Giuseppe Verdi at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

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Giuseppe Verdi was 71 when he wrote Otello. It is remarkable that someone like Verdi, who could have rested on his laurels, was attempting new forms. He abandoned the strict closed forms (arias and duets with a prescribed beginning, middle, and end) and turned instead to a more fluid, uninterrupted dramatic flow. Of course he didn’t abandon the aria altogether, for it appears in various forms throughout Otello – the drinking song, the prayer, the love duet, etc. – but they are blended into his newer, more lyrical approach. This new creative energy provided us with two of Verdi’s masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff.

The new LA Opera production is a co-production with Opera de Monte-Carlo and Teatro Regio di Parma. It is directed by Glyndebourne alum John Cox and designed by Johan Engels. Engels places the action on board a ship with a curved stage floor that, I feel, doesn’t really serve the piece, or the singers, who always have to watch their footing and balance. This leaves the director with not many choices.

The singing, however, is much more successful, featuring English tenor Ian Storey as Otello, Chilean soprano Christina Gallardo-Domas as Desdemona, and the powerful Mark Delavan as Iago. Storey, fresh from a triumph as Tristan at La Scala, sings the leading role beautifully but doesn’t seem to have a lot of presence despite his height. He is outdone by baritone Delavan who delivers a strong Iago, and Gallardo-Domas's smashing Desdemona. The beauty of her voice particularly struck me in the last act as she sang the prayer and the famous “Willow Song.”

Of particular interest to me was the way Verdi departs from the original Shakespeare. There is no Venice, no Doge, no irate father. The opera starts in Cyprus, and concentrates mainly on the love between Otello (Othello) and Desdemona. Desdemona has a scene, not in the Shakespeare, where she is surrounded by other women and children, to emphasize her pure nature and innocence. Iago is given the definite motive of being passed over in favor of Cassio for promotion. Also gone are the fits of epilepsy that the Elizabethans believed were signs of greatness and gave the hero vulnerability. They are replaced by simple fainting or apoplexy. Perhaps it was too strenuous to ask a singer to writhe on the floor. Otello plays at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion through March 9.

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