Monday, January 25, 2010

Opera review: Second cast outstanding in PB Opera's 'Otello'

Allan Glassman and Michele Capalbo in Otello.

By Rex Hearn

Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello was the basis for the libretto Arrigo Boito wrote for Giuseppe Verdi, who at the time Boito approached him about the opera was 71 years old and considered himself retired.

But three years later, in February 1887, Otello had its triumphant premiere at La Scala, and this work plus Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, are considered the pinnacle of the Italian opera tradition.

Saturday night's second-cast performance at the Palm Beach Opera confirmed this: It was a truly grand production.

From his first-act entrance, tenor Allan Glassman established his character and credentials as Otello with a booming Esultate! L'orgoglio musulmano (Rejoice! The Mussulman's pride is buried in the sea). His voice, brilliant in victory and stentorian in tone, which Glassman maintained all evening, projected beautifully.

He has the vocal quality of an early Callas in its dramatic overtone, timbre and delivery. His artistry in the way he shapes each phrase was most impressive, and he let his voice carry on the breath, bel canto style, without pushing. He has a heroic tenor, which this part cries out for.

The cunning, two-faced ensign, Iago, sung by baritone Daniel Sutin, made the most of this meaty role, conniving, persuading, and plotting Otello’s downfall. Sutin’s voice is a first-class instrument; it has a rich, iron-edged quality that made one never doubt he would succeed. Perhaps only a little more obsequiousness in his acting would have been in order.

Daniel Sutin as Iago.

Sutin led a fantastic brindisi in Act I with fine choral backup, and sang the Credo masterfully in Act II. This Credo, Boito’s only divergence from Victor Hugo’s translation of Shakespeare’s plot, which was his source, is needed to establish Iago as the Mephistopheles, the bad guy, of the opera. In doing so, Boito met with Verdi’s approval : "Most beautiful, and wholly Shakespearean," opined the maestro of Boito’s new, well-chosen words.

As Desdemona, the Canadian soprano Michele Capalbo rose to great heights. Her beautiful voice and subtle acting created an artistic gem that shone brilliantly from start to finish. In the Act I love duet, Gia nella notte densa (The night is dark and silent), she was indeed Otello’s lover and equal. Their love felt real.

Michele Capalbo as Desdemona.

But as Iago’s sly plots against her man progress, Capalbo showed her anxiety and concern as Otello falls away from her, mistakenly believing she is in love with Cassio. In the bedroom scene of Act IV, the great Willow Song was most tenderly and beautifully sung, as was the Ave Maria that came next. Capalbo has an elegant way of finishing off her vocal line by drawing her voice back momentarily on high notes, holding audiences in thrall for what is a lovely softening effect. This was a touching and memorable performance.

Cassio, a young captain of the guard, sung by tenor Norman Shankle, is the unsuspecting victim of Iago’s cunning. He sang his role wonderfully well. His bright tenor and arrogant swagger had one rooting for his promotion, which we knew would come from his cool demeanor : he’s made governor of Cyprus in place of the discredited murderer, Otello.

Mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts was a fine Emilia, and bass Grigory Soloviov sang the role of the Venetian ambassador, Ludovico, very well.

Director Bernard Uzan came up with a good idea for the climactic murder: There wasn't a pillow in sight when Otello kills Desdemona, strangling her from behind as she stands on the stairs. Uzan also moves crowds like no other; he had the Palm Beach Opera chorus becoming Venetians, Cypriots and Greek men-at-arms in no time.

And the chorus was superb. This is a group made up of young and exciting voices that beats the Metropolitan Opera's wobble-prone group by a mile. All praise, then, to chorus master Gregory Ritchey for his thorough training.

The scenery was provided by the Cincinnati Opera. Donald E. Thomas supervised the lighting, and the follow spots were accurate and on target.

And the orchestra in the pit sounded and played brilliantly under the baton of Bruno Aprea. They did justice to Verdi’s seamless continuity and sumptuous orchestral writing with keen playing, which is what we have come to expect from this excellent symphonic ensemble of 70 or more musicians.

This is one of those operas where music and lyrics combine to make a masterpiece. Poetry and song are balanced in lyrical forms. With this production, the Palm Beach Opera's new general director, Daniel Biaggi, is putting his stamp of quality on the company as it moves toward its half-century, just two short years from now in 2012.

The sky’s the limit.

Rex Hearn founded the Berkshire Opera Company in Massachusetts in 1985. He has been reviewing opera in southern Florida since 1995.

Otello will be performed at 2 p.m. today at the Kravis Center with tenor Allan Glassman as Otello, soprano Michele Capalbo as Dedesmona, and baritone Daniel Sutin as Iago. Tickets: $23-$175. Call 1-800-572-8471 or visit

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