Trading the grey and wet of Melbourne for twenty-four blessed hours of warmth and sunshine would, frankly, be reason enough for a flight to Brisbane, but you know me: I travel for singers, and I went to Brisbane to see Cheryl Barker sing Desdemona in Opera Queensland's Otello. What could be travelworthier? Five years ago, I saw her sing it seven times out of eight at Opera Australia and the ache of that missed matinée (missed by me, I should stress, not by Cheryl) was only sharpened by her jaw dropping Willow Song in concert with the Sydney Philharmonia earlier this year. So thank you, Opera Australia: your Ring Cycle brought me to the Antipodes just in time. Maybe next time you could even arrange for everything to happen in the same city or – revolutionary thought – the same company.
But that's another conversation. I'm here to applaud this excellent Otello. Opera Queensland is the first Australian port of call for this co-production (it premiered in Cape Town) and has furnished it with an auspicious debut. The orchestra was in excellent form under the astute, attentive baton of Johannes Fritzsch, the OQ chorus very strong indeed, and full marks to the company for assembling a really impressive cast of seasoned performers from both Australia and beyond.
I confess I had my qualms when I heard the concept and indeed even upon seeing some of the production photos – Otello on an aircraft carrier? Really? But assuming you don't fundamentally object to the concept of updating the setting – which I don't – then this production, by Simon Phillips, actually succeeds remarkably well. It's like watching an incredibly well sung episode of NCIS. The narrative is straightforward, true to its source and entirely believable, and Phillips is ingeniously faithful to the libretto: nobody says "sword" while waving a gun and, dare I say it, all those conveniently overheard conversations actually make more sense when they're held on a ship whose every corner is observable by CCTV. The tracksuit in which Otello appears to break up the raucous drinking session, and then during the love duet, didn't bother me as it did one reviewer: maybe it's not the most dignified outfit ever, but hey, the guy's had a long day and he's settling in for the night with his wife – why shouldn't he dress for comfort?
My compatriot Sarah Castle continued what I imagine is a grand tradition of Emilias who make you wish Verdi had at least given the character a duet or an aria to sing; but she acted her long silences beautifully and what little she did sing was sit-up-and-listen fantastic. Aldo Di Toro, meanwhile, did his level best to steal my heart with a Cassio of sweetness, substance and scrupulous bel canto style. John Antoniou (Montano), Andrew Collis (Lodovico) and Virgilio Marino (Roderigo) all made much of their bite-size roles, testifying to the depth of talent upon which Brisbane, and indeed Australian opera companies in general, are able to draw.
In my heart he will always be Sharpless, but Douglas McNicol was nevertheless plausibly malevolent and just a wee bit icky and voyeuristic as Iago, looking for all the world like the high ranking official in a spy thriller who turns out to be in league with the enemy, and singing with the focused, matter-of-fact voice to match. Frank Porretta had all the authority and italianità you'd expect from such an accustomed Otello, not to mention bagloads of stamina; and while he was certainly convincing in his upright, nice-guy incarnation, it was actually his crazed homicidal Otello which really worked for me.
Which is not to say that I didn't curse him for killing the best thing on stage. Cheryl's Desdemona was a ray of civilian sunshine on a ship full of firearms and fatigues. Vulnerable, sure, but not snappably fragile: she's not Ophelia, after all, and her optimism and strength of character persisted to the bitter end, even as the whole audience silently screamed at her to just stop talking about Cassio. From the cold start of the Act I duet, to the emotional freefall and monumental ensemble of Act III, to a transfixing Willow Song and Ave Maria, this was seriously classy singing. Lustrous, gorgeous stuff, and somehow, no matter how much wallowy pleasure I might take in it, never self indulgent for a second. You already know my feelings about the luminous, alchemic side of Cheryl's artistry, so forgive me if I de-purple my prose just a little and say it outright: this is a lady with one heck of a technique and one heck of a voice and you could travel much further than Melbourne to Brisbane before you saw her surpassed.
I know some of the above might sound suspiciously like a review but really it's just an attempt at an ovation in writing. If I'd hated the show, I'd have kept quiet about it, but happily enough, I liked it so much that I wanted to spread the word. If you live in a major Australian city that isn't Sydney, or if you live in New Zealand, this Otello is probably headed your way within the next year or two – it's a co-production with Cape Town Opera, Victorian Opera, State Opera of South Australia and New Zealand Opera – and I'm here to say, I thoroughly recommend it. Next stop is Perth, in February next year, once again with Cheryl. Go on, West Australians. Make me jealous.