Presumably we have Simone Young to thank for the presence of a Harry Kupfer Otello in Opera Australia's repertory — another reason for me to regret not having lived here during her ill-fated tenure with the national company. Simone fascinates me, if for no other reason than that I've heard story after story but never actually seen the woman in action. My own fault actually, since I know she's appeared with the SSO since I've been here.
Anyway, returning to the matter at hand. Otello opened last Friday and it's fantastic. It makes me want to take Elke Neidhardt to see it (except I suspect she'd be a rather high maintenance concert companion) and say: look, this is how it's done! This is Otello in WWII, in the stately home of a bunch of Fascists. No overdone political statements, though; just an atmosphere of unsettlingly recognisable fear and deception. Setting it here also neatly sidesteps the controversial cosmetics issue: to blackface or not to blackface?
Jonathan Summers is much too convincing as a Nazi. Charismatic and terrifying. Peter Coleman-Wright was originally scheduled to sing Iago in this production, and while that would have been good to see, I'm slightly glad it turned out this way — Summers is amazing, quite frankly. Although I had to stifle a giggle when he turned, and it struck me that in profile he bore a striking resemblance to Master Braun. (If you don't want to click the link — it's Peter Cook. As a German villain. A la Thunderbirds. Enough said.)
Also, two pleasant surprises and both them were tenors. I confess I have been complaining for months about the casting of Dennis O'Neill as Otello. Look, I don't doubt his Verdi tenor credentials. But he seemed strained to me in Un ballo in maschera and Otello is an even bigger sing than that. Besides which — I know we don't really approve of casting looks before talent, but there is a certain level of credibility which I think is not unreasonable. Dennis is short and portly and mostly "acts" by shaking his fist at the heavens. Never good, but especially not with Cheryl Barker as his Desdemona. Cheryl who is willowy and gorgeous and a very good actress. My thought was: this will never work. When I saw them together in Il trittico it actually took me a good ten minutes to realise he was the love interest and not her father. However. It does work. He sings the hell out of it in fact, and the height thing isn't much of an issue — the set, a massive staircase, seems made for him. No, he still can't act, and this does hurt the chemistry with Cheryl a bit, but not much. She's actress enough to make up for him. And did I mention he sings the hell out of it? I was very impressed.
The other surprising tenor was Kanen Breen. Every time I've seen Kanen of late, he's seemed to get less audible and more irritating and again — me and my prejudices — I thought casting him in BIG Verdi was surely an error. Imagine my surprise to find that I could hear him! And he sounded really quite good! I didn't buy him as a man who'd be promoted over fierce, stocky little Otello but it was just so nice to enjoy his voice again. After all, Kanen Breen used to be one of my favourite OA regulars. Maybe he will be again.
A question now for Opera Australia. When, in the name of all that's holy, will you get a clue and cast Jacqueline Dark in a leading role? Maybe it's just me, but it does seem a little odd that probably the loveliest lyric mezzo in the company is getting handed nothing but bit parts. I thought Suzuki was a thankless role, but Emilia trumps it. Yet in that final scene, where at last she has more than a couple of words to sing, Jacqui suddenly unleashes this torrent of fabulous, exciting singing which makes you think you could start another opera right here.
Oh. Cheryl Barker is in this opera too. No wonder Otello is jealous. So would you be, if you were Mickey Rooney married to Ava Gardner. There's a worldliness about Cheryl's Desdemona which appeals to me: she's as in love with her husband's status and power (and its reflection upon her) as she is with the man himself. That makes her downfall even more tragic, because she isn't just a weak girl crushed by larger powers, she's a self-aware woman whose carefully built world is suddenly destroyed. Without Otello she has no safety net. It's not cowardice which leads her to wait for him to murder her. She depends on his life force for her own existence, even if that dependence kills her. "Egli era nato per la sua gloria, io per amarlo e per morir" — "He was born for glory, I to love him and to die." She attributes the words to pathetic Barbara but they're plainly her own. Her singing is drop dead gorgeous as usual. Fiery and brilliant from start to finish; I didn't know she had such shimmery pianissimi in her, either. And a fabulous high A# in the final scene, which she nails while running into Emilia's arms — nicely done, Cheryl.
There's something trivial I'm wondering, though. If anyone out there saw this production in 2003 — did Elena Prokina (who I understand was amazing) have slightly broader shoulders than Cheryl? I mean it in the nicest possible way; it's just that as lovely as Cheryl is in all her costumes, some of them don't seem to fit perfectly, especially the purple dress.
I'm booked for another two performances. I only didn't book more because I thought I might not be up to sitting through the boys again and again while waiting for Cheryl. Now that that's clearly not the case, I suspect three will not be enough.