Simon O’Neill and Lianna Haroutounian soar over Kupfer’s epic production.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

July 5, 2014

For many (myself included), Otello is Verdi’s very greatest work. The opera that he was so reluctant to write, considering himself by this time in his life a retired gentleman farmer, Otello was a compositional labour of love for a man in his seventies. It eventually took him four years to pen, from 1884 to 1887, but these far from mellow fruits of the composer’s old age were well worth the waiting for.

Arrigo Boito’s libretto may also lay claim to being the most masterly adaptation of a Shakespeare play for the musical stage. Taut, pacey and faithful to the playwright’s intentions, Boito’s masterstroke was to cut the first act entirely – no great dramatic loss. He also (possibly more by luck than judgement) managed to remove any overtly racist references, making it entirely plausible to play Otello as a man of any colour a director chooses. Finally, by adding Iago’s chilling Credo, he ennobles Shakespeare’s villain, raising him from embittered middle-management type to intriguing philosophical nihilist.

Harry Kupfer’s handsome production for Opera Australia, sensitively revived by Roger Press, is just over ten-years-old and wears its age pretty lightly. Verdi apparently was for jettisoning a range of operatic conventions at first, including the chorus, thus robbing the work of some musical heft and potentially diluting the political element. But Verdi was by nature a political animal and Kupfer reflects that in his setting – a non-specific European country sometime between the world wars. We arrive in the midst of a potentially disastrous conflict in a palazzo populated by the fag end of an aristocracy most likely about to find themselves on their uppers.

It’s a treatment full of telling detail, though with one or two nonsensical moments – why does Otello stand on a small but nicely upholstered armchair to read the Doge’s proclamation? But the way the chorus flap around and are ejected after Otello publically shames Desdemona adds to the sense of people floundering outside of their social norms. And the moment where the women unpack the jewels they’d popped into their suitcases ready for a quick getaway, is poignant.

Hans Schavernoch’s set with its sweepingly dramatic, potentially perilous steps, reflects Empire in decay complete with bomb craters, providing excellent lurking places for an Iago or an Otello. A central bronze statue of Atlas hoisting an astrolabe surmounts an ominous cross of red carpet, reflecting social opulence. They also symbolise Otello, a man who will bear the world on his shoulders, and the cross upon which Iago will crucify him. It’s beautifully lit by Toby Sewell (the rattan tables at the back, set for high tea and glimpsed through the slatted doors are magically caught) and Yan Tax’s costumes are a sumptuous delight – lucky the chorus lady who gets to parade in such Downton-esque finery – just watch your hem on those steps…

The three main principals could hardly be better. As Otello, New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill is tireless and thrilling. It’s not the Italian-cum-heldentenor sound one often hears in the role. O’Neill has a tighter, lighter tone – more of an amplified spinto – but once the ear adjusts he’s crystal clear even from the very back of the set. This is a reading of enormous panache, considerable vocal nuance and some of the most exciting top notes you are likely to hear on an operatic stage today. How rare and enjoyable it is to sit back and enjoy a singer in such a demanding role in full confidence that he won’t fall at any of the numerous vocal hurdles. The phrase-shaping of which he is capable, despite the gruelling requirements of volume or tessitura, is remarkable. And I’ve never heard so many of the words in a live performance of the role. The rapturous ascent to the top note as he sings “scendean sulle mie tenebre la gloria, il paradiso e gli astri a benedir” in the love duet is spine-tingling and the top note on “della Gloria d’Otello”, in the farewell-to-arms is hair-raising. The first act dramatically defines him a little unsympathetically as a bit a strutter, but from second act onwards he inhabits the role with growing subtlety, rising to some tremendous scenes with his wife and a fine suicide. He hurls himself around with gay abandon, and manages some pretty spectacular tumbles for a man of his stature.

Amidst the recent furore it’s easy to forget that Lianna Haroutounian only arrived a week ago to replace her disgraced predecessor. You’d never know it from her accomplished performance as the hapless Desdemona. The Armenian soprano is pure gold in the role, wielding a warm, Tebaldi-like tone of great richness and considerable amplitude. Her performance in the second act quartet and the tremendous septet of act three is thrilling. Her voice is able to ride the orchestra and full chorus when necessary, yet sensitively never swamps her fellow soloists. Anyone wanting to study the famous Willow Song could do worse than listen to Haroutounian. She phrases it perfectly, managing to find an impressive range of colours for each cry of “salce”, and her vocal ascent to the crucial piano note is gloriously handled. Needless to say, she’s entirely within the role and evokes enormous sympathy.

The Italian baritone Claudio Sgura makes for a hulking Iago with a whiff of the abyss about him from the start. It’s a warmer tone than some Iagos, but the voice is dark and strong across the range and, although he might manipulate the text a little harder, he inevitably uses it to good effect. His lovely legato singing in his dream aria is textbook. Dramatically he is a powerful presence with a disarming nonchalance at times and a sardonic brand of gallows humour. The look from heaven to hell (settling on neither) during the Credo, and the moment when he looks like he’s going to cut himself in a blood pact with Otello, only to throw the dagger contemptuously aside when he realises no-one is watching, are handled with aplomb. This Iago is empty, even in victory.

James Egglestone is a likeable Cassio, carrying off his drunk scene more effectively than many. He’s a comfortable actor with all the notes required for the role and he sings with style. The slightly covered sound and some questionable Italian now and again, however, could benefit from time and attention. If Jacqueline Dark seems to be channelling Bronwen Bishop at times (her Emilia is certainly no maid-of-all-work), she still puts in an illuminating performance, capturing the complexity of a woman who is very likely a victim of domestic violence, yet able to spit fire at Otello at the end. “I’m your wife, not your slave”, she sings to Iago, but it rings sadly hollow. As a suave Roderigo, David Corcoran makes the convincing journey from downcast lover to Iago’s stooge, with a telling moment when he realises that Iago’s fearsome bullying leaves him, as it does Emilia, unable to extricate himself from the devil’s pact. Richard Anderson is a strong presence dramatically and vocally as Montano while Pelham Andrews makes an authoritative, if slightly hollow-toned Lodovico.

A superbly disciplined chorus and some fine, idiomatic conducting from Christian Badea in the pit also grace this revival. An awkward start sees the overzealous use of thunder SFX threatening to swamp the muffled orchestra – it seems the larger the band in the Opera House pit, the less effectively carried is the sound of brass and percussion.  However, Badea then proceeds to give a highly dramatic reading of the score, exemplary for pace and energy. Only in the Credo is there need for more orchestral gravitas. The strings are on excellent form – how beautiful is the cello solo in the love duet and how ravishing are the violins at the end of the Ave Maria? The brass are fine too, if only you could take the lid off the orchestra pit and hear them a bit better! The oboe, alas, had a less successful opening night.

The Opera Australia chorus is on stunning form, as magnificent as it was in Eugene Onegin earlier in the season, singing with style, passion and great determination. Amongst the highlights are a nimble Fuoco di gioia (the Fire chorus) and the sheer power exhibited in the great third act ensemble. They are up and down those steps too, with nary a stumble. Otello plays until August 2 but there are a limited number of performances. If you want to see and hear the very pinnacle of Italian opera in an excellent production with an outstanding cast, I urge you to go.