A sublime Otello at Grange Park Opera

The dark side dominates in David Alden’s sombre Otello for Grange Park Opera. While the tragedy is Otello and Desdemona, the focus of this production is not only how Iago brings about the fatal suspicion, but sadistically enjoys watching the pain he brings about.

Yes, with his seductive and glowing baritone Simon Keenlyside excelled as Verdi’s manifestation of the Shakespearian monster and, as so often happens, threatens to overshadow even the title role. However, with Gwyn Hughes Jones and Elizabeth Llewellyn in scintillating form this was very much a performance with three stars soaring.

Gwyn Hughes Jones gave a virtuosic display of beautiful dramatic singing, demonstrating his mastery of his art much of which has been honed abroad. He was at his strongest when required to project the passionate and forceful heroic tenor, but was able to show a pleasing mezzovoce when his tragedy is complete. Dramatically, it is difficult to convey why such a military giant is brought to his knees and is open to such basic manipulation on such skimpy evidence. Yet here we witness the physical as well as emotional collapse of a man destroyed by Iago, an incarnation of evil that is stronger than Otello’s greatness.

That evil also destroys the innocent Desdemona.  Elizabeth Llewellyn’s burnished soprano delivered a performance rich in pathos, thrilling and heart-breaking in equal measure. She too had the ability to deliver soaring power and fragility when Verdi demands. While those top notes thrilled, the purity of voice was at its most pleasing in an exquisite Ave Maria.

Elizabeth Llewellyn

Simon Keenlyside

Director David Alden would seem to have taken Verdi’s apparent initial desire to call the opera Iago to the extreme of building the entire production around him – he is rarely off stage and even appears in front of the curtain before each act unfolds. As such the production is a showcase for the vocal finesse of Simon Keenlyside, deep in characterisation, impressively controlled and golden, even as words of venom poured from his mouth. On the Grange Park stage, with the audience up close, the sullen psychologically sinister performance can be particularly measured and subtle. If anything, the hatred in the voice is a little too psychotic, cold and calculated.

There are solid supporting roles. Olivia Ray’s Emilia looks like an efficient 1930s office secretary but sings with elegance as the caring maid (and terrorised wife to Iago) while Elgan Llyr Thomas is convincingly played as an easily led, simple drunkard rather than dashing military captain. The roles are sung sympathetically and, as directed, cleanly acted.

Visually, it is a rather one-dimensional production. However, the production does not matter too much in this powerhouse of singing, which is possibly just as well. The setting is nondescript, although maps tell us we are indeed in Cyprus at some presumably Italian Fascist period in the mid 20th century.  We are in a rundown, maybe war damaged restaurant or hotel, occupied by the military, and the visiting Venetian dignitaries appear with briefcases and umbrellas, sporting fashionable smart suits. None of this really adds or takes away from the opera, except reducing contrast between the civic and private, the glorious public choral highpoints and the delicate personal duets.

Designer Charlie Edwards keeps the action all in setting which has to be the quayside, the military headquarters, public areas and Desdemona’s bedroom. A curtain is partially opened and closed to allow characters to enter and leave, and, more importantly for Iago to lurk and observe his manipulations taking effect.

Tim Mitchell’s lighting is such that shadows of the characters almost have a life of their own, tower over or shrink below each other and the actual singers, as the plot develops and Otello’s perfect life comes apart. The lighting for the opening of the doorway as Otello enters Desdemona’s fatal bedchamber is particularly effective.

The closing scenes are genuinely moving, thanks to the strengths of our Otello and Desdemona although the shooting rather than smothering is a bit of a damp squib.

However, the emotion is dampened with the decision to again put Iago as the focus at the very end, sitting like a deranged psychopath enjoying watching the death throes of his victim. Dramatically it is effective, however, Verdi does not need the horror of his monster Iago spelled out quite so bluntly – the words and music do it all.

Hand wringing over racial concerns is somewhat overcome with no blacking up (and a black woman singing Desdemona) and Otello is shown to be a Christian to boot. Frankly, the issue of colour casting is left where it should be, outside.

The magic of this performance belonged to the singers, accompanied by the Gascoigne Orchestra conducted by Gianluca Marciano, with the three principal characters making glorious role debuts and the chorus tremendous, particularly considering the demands of the Grange Park season.

Until July 9.

Main image: Gwyn Hughes Jones

Images: Marc Brenner


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