By Guiseppe Verdi. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 19,25 Feb; 2,5,8,16,19 March, 2022

Reviewed : 19 February, 2022

Photo : Prudence Upton

Otello is a Venetian general and the governor of Cyprus. Iago is his ensign. They have just returned to Cyprus in a violent storm after a victory against the Turks. The city is celebrating, but not everyone is happy! Otello has overlooked Iago by appointing another officer, Cassio, as Captain of the Navy. And Iago is angry! He is a malicious man and plots revenge against them both. The outcome is a cruel scenario based on deceit, manipulation, jealousy … and gullibility. It results in Cassio killing Roderigo, another young soldier – and Otello being driven to kill his newly-wed wife, Desdemona.

It is not a very pleasant story, yet Verdi was able compose music that evoked these harsh themes as well as the stirring emotions that provoked them. He wrote for a strong. powerful voices and an orchestra that could conjure a raging storm, a vindictive villain, a dying, mis-accused wife and a remorsely repentant husband.

Korean born tenor Yonghoon Lee is Otello. Baritone Marco Vratogna is Iago. Their voices match the demands of Verdi’s music – and the range of emotions their characters expose. Yonghoon Lee amazes in his ability to establish Otello’s respect and authority in compelling notes filled with power and command – and irresolute notes that show the wavering gullibility of the man. Amazingly this is the first time Lee has played Otello – and he inhabits the role masterfully.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Marco Vratogna finds every vicious dimension in Iago’s character – and the music Verdi created for this vengeful man. Vratogna sings and struts the villain well! He is a forceful presence – both vocally and theatrically – making Iago hatefully impressive.

Soprano Karah Son is the ill-fated Desdemona. Loyal and loving, she thinks well of everyone, falling prey to the fabrications Iago weaves around her. Son shines in this role. She has some special moments: the beautiful ‘kiss’ duet with Otello at the end of Act 1 – and the hauntingly evocative “Willow” song in Act 1V.

Australian tenor Virgilio Marino is the much-maligned Cassio. Marion finds all the oscillating musical variations Verdi has woven into his creation of Cassio – especially in the scene where Iago tempts him to drink too much. He sings and plays a very operatic drunk!

Iago’s wife, Emilia, is played by Sian Sharp. Richard Anderson is the luckless Roderigo, Andrew Moran is Montano – and Andrew Williams plays a Herald.

Photo : Prudence Upton

This relatively small group of principals is backed by a large and skilful Opera Australia Chorus, that shines particularly vibrantly in the storm scene at the beginning of the opera. They sing and move in time with the roaring wind and thunder invoked by the orchestra, creating waves of voice and movement that simulate the waves that threaten the harbour below them.

Andrea Battistoni conducts the Opera Australia Orchestra with energetic verve in this revival of Harry Kupfer’s 2003 original vision, directed by Luke Joslin. Kupfer’s production took the opera from the 1880s to the middle years of the twentieth century, exemplified in the exotic costumes designed by Yan Tax. The set is a double diagonal stairway stretching up to a wall of slatted folding doors that shake and flail in the storm. A rich gold and crimson carpet covers the central area of the stairs, providing a luxurious, yet almost threatening, context for this malevolent story, in which both the heroine and the hero die – and the spiteful villain survives.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.