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24 July, 2008

Full blooded Otello at Sydney Opera House: Friday 18th July 2008.

Otello by Verdi. Sydney Opera House Friday 18th July 2008

At last the opera company has managed a smash hit, full blooded opera after two near misses. The revival of Harry Kupfer’s stair-mounted production of Otello was well received by a discerning Sydney public.

The best thing about Otello was the title role. Dennis O’Neill sang splendidly in the relentless tale of his undoing. His ‘Esultate’ was ringing and focussed, as were ‘Si pel ciel’ (with Summers), ‘Ora e per sempre, addio’ and the death scene. He was indeed the Venetian Lion!

Jonathan Summers has all it takes for the role of Iago, vocally and dramatically. He bounded around the stage like someone half his years and the voice was responsive across the wide range required. The challenging drinking song in Act 1 was energetic and proficient, its high notes rolling off perfectly. His ‘credo’ was solid. He made an entirely credible ‘mean machine’.

Cheryl Barker has a fine middle voice, however, she can tend to sound ‘plum in the mouth’ or nasal when outside this range. Few however could complain at her sympathetic portrayal of Desdemona which is well crafted, making her captivating yet vulnerable. Her ‘Willow song’ and Ave Maria following were poised and beautiful.

Kupfer’s modern production has all 4 acts dominated by a massive ‘face-on’ staircase, the right quarter of which has been ‘bombed out’ (there are even circular remnants of the damaged ceiling above). Two strips of richly patterned carpet intersect at right angles with a massive Atlas-holding-the-world statue half way up the relentless bank of stairs. Atop are half a dozen double louvre doors leading to a vertiginous veranda. Much of the action takes place on the steps themselves, making it very awkward for the singers. Only the distant upper landing, narrow strip near the footlights and a mere gap to the left are available for normal performing. The latter is all we have to resemble a bedroom for Act 4.

Kupfer has the chorus rush from the upper level at the first roaring notes of the opera to populate the stairs like a wave rushes up a beach. It is very effective dramatically yet an occupational safety officer may have some objections. The staircase might not pass muster under today’s building codes, having 20 steep, uninterrupted steps. I was told that the rear ‘stage’ stairs are even more perilous.

Kanen Breen managed the role of Cassio but it is not his ideal part (his Hoffmann characters were marvellous). On the other hand, Stephen Bennett, a one-time very fine Leporello for this company was performing the relatively small role of Montano. Jacqueline Dark again played a credible Emilia, the composite role of Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. She and Mr Summers were in the original 2003 production featuring Frank Poretta conducted by Simone Young. The latter happened to be in the opening night audience along with lots of other dignitaries in town for the Catholic festivities and Pope’s visit. I was surprised that we still have not seen musical director Mr Richard Hickox so far this season.

The orchestra under Simon Hewett was equal to the enormous demands of this complex work. The fortissimi and pianissimi were most marked. From this performance, I find it hard to imagine a better sound coming from an improved pit design, although any measure to reduce aural damage in orchestra members is to be encouraged.

The opera company chorus also did a superb job, dealing with difficult demands vocally - not to mention the dangerous stage work.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..