Front row: Rachel Willis-Sorenson, left, Morris Robinson and Russell Thomas in Otello. Photo by Cory Weaver, used by permission.
The production of Otello currently playing at the LA Opera is somewhat unconventionally staged on a platform that resembles the inside of a ship, an obvious metaphor for the vessel that the titular character can command to victory with ease, while the boat that floats his own life can be sunk with just a few poisonous words. With Russell Thomas as Otello, Rachel Willis-Sorenson as his angelic bride Desdemona and Igor Golovatenko as the black-hearted Iago, and conductor James Conlon leading the orchestra, it’s a descent into the horror of human nature, the music adding deadly force to the hand twisting the knife.
Iago is, paradoxically, both the villain and the most interesting character, the antagonist who ends up being the hidden protagonist. The story is really about him and how his sinister motivations can take root and cause a clearly virtuous man to unravel, and experience a terrible downfall. He’s got the opening line of the great drinking song, “beva con me, beva beva…,” as he gets a fellow officer drunk on the eve of his big promotion, and tries to talk someone into kicking his ass. And he’s got the great aria “Credo In Un Dio Crudel” (“I Believe In A Cruel God”), a chilling hymn to unholy urges that answers any questions you may have had about, “why is this guy doing all these awful things?” Giuseppe Verdi’s operas becoming popular are historically, right around the beginning of music performed for the middle class in Europe, as opposed to something only heard by aristocracy. It’s literally some of the first popular music that is not church music. So that desire to put forth an anti-hero, who gives magnificent voice to the worst urges in the human soul, is a pretty brave choice. Golovatenko brings the right shade of malice to this unique role – his bunk in the ship really should have a sign over it that reads “Asshole And Proud Of It”.
Verdi is also a master of the devastating insult scene, as anyone familiar with La Traviata will remember. When Thomas appears to soften his heart during a fit of jealousy, and offer a soothing word to his desperately confused bride, “Let me apologize, take my hand… for a minute I was mistaken, I thought you were… MY WHORE OF A WIFE!”, it’s genuinely shocking. Even without being able to follow the Italian libretto verbatim, both Thomas and Willis-Sorenson are masters at conveying strong, overwhelming emotion through phrasing and tone. While Thomas isn’t the loudest voice onstage, the sound of it just radiates authority and command. Willis-Sorenson, in her LA debut, excels in the role of Desdemona, an effortless soprano who can communicate darkness and desperation rather than bright eyed innocence, even at the top of her register.
I remember the hoopla when LA Opera’s Otello happened to debut on the same night as the OJ trials, drawing comparison between two displays of poisonous jealousy with a terrible outcome, allegedly. This year, we can contemplate the insidious effects of targeted misinformation. Some things will never go out of style, and many of those things are on full display in Otello, sure to be no less relevant in its next airing, whenever that is. But you should see it now, while it’s here, with these singers, because that opportunity is sure to bite the dust.
Otello plays at the LA Opera through June 4. Tickets, $24 to $324, available here.