One thing you can’t say against arch villain Iago in the Opera Carolina production of Verdi’s Otello. He wasn’t a racist. Arrigo Boïto’s libretto, trimmed only slightly at Charlotte’s Belk Theater toward the end of Act 3, doesn’t couch Iago’s hatred of the Moor in racial terms, nor does the cunning schemer fling about wild suspicions that Otello has bedded his wife Emilia. No, to inject the subtext of race into Iago’s demonic vengeance, the Governor of Cyprus must look the part of an appropriate target – fierce, menacing, and black. When the great warrior made his first triumphant appearance at the port of Cyprus in the opening act, it was difficult to positively identify him as Otello. Carl Tanner, the tenor who had been so impressive less than eight weeks earlier as Don José in Opera Carolina’s Carmen, was utterly transformed by costume and makeup. Unfortunately, none of the makeover was devoted to transforming Tanner into the “old black ram” Iago despises in Shakespeare’s text.
On the bright side, a white Otello sidesteps the hazard of smudging Desdemona’s face or costume during their kissing duet. Yet without a racial gulf between the Moor of Venice and the vengeful Iago – or the impetuous Desdemona who has married him – or the seething Roderigo who still fancies the general’s wife – the onus on Tanner to retain Otello’s tragic grandeur is redoubled. For Boïto’s reduction of Bard’s script, which skips over Othello’s elopement and starts us off in the Bard’s Act 2, already shrinks the process by which Iago poisons the Moor with jealousy to a point where the ensign’s cunning is diminished and the great general’s gullibility is dangerously increased.
Stripped of his fearsome physical strangeness in a strange land, which undoes Desdemona as much as it undoes Otello, Tanner had to draw upon his voice and the music to make the Moor’s downfall both convincing and tragic. Back in March, Tanner’s strengths as Don José had become more apparent when he was tortured by Carmen’s infidelity. The flames of Otello’s jealousy brought out an even more horrifying rage – especially in the two rough confrontations with Desdemona in Act 3 after she underestimates her husband’s upset over the lost and stolen handkerchief. At the other side of his passionate rampage, when Otello realizes that he has wronged Desdemona, the anguish of the regret Tanner infused into his final “un bacio ancora” was all the more heartbreaking for the heights we had seen in his rage.
Sandra Lopez’s performance as Desdemona also grew stronger as the drama deepened. The sunniness of her smile brought an idyllic quality to the “Gia nella” duet of Act 1, where the “Un bacio” theme first occurs, and her confidently beguiling attitude as she speaks on Cassio’s behalf in Act 2 was a perfect carryover. But Lopez best captured Desdemona’s nobility as her victimization – and her helplessness against it – became more horribly clear in the final acts. Her progression from the somberness of the “Willow Song” to the beatific resignation of the “Ave Maria” in the last act was very affecting.
While the set design by Ercole Sormani was richly detailed and conventional enough, his layout for the final act – Desdemona’s bed upstage right, perpendicular to the orchestra, with the portrait of the Madonna at the rear – didn’t offer attractive choices for either Desdemona’s prayer or her murder. Stage director Trevore Ross wrestled against these restrictions, turning Lopez toward us as she kneeled for her “Ave” and ejecting her from her bed to scamper around the stage before Tanner strangled her in a WWF-style choke-hold, robbing the tableau of its usual sacrificial sublimity.
On the other hand, Ross seemed inclined to drain Iago’s vendetta against Otello of all its melodrama. Welsh baritone Jason Howard didn’t allow that to happen in a brilliant Charlotte debut. Racially-based or not, there was a vicious snap to this Iago’s hatred toward the Moor, and his embrace of pure evil in the famed “Credo” aria at the start of Act 2 was a jolt that turned up the voltage for the rest of the evening. That black leather costume and the slicked-back hair further accented Howard’s malignity. Falloff was noticeable, if not precipitous, in the comprimario roles. Brian Arreola as Roderigo and Martha Bartz as Emilia brought little spark to the Belk Theater stage, and the sweet-voiced Jason Kern lacked sufficient confidence as Cassio, though he’s handsome enough to rouse Otello’s jealousy. Better was baritone John Fortson, first as Montano, the governor Cassio wounds when he disgraces himself, and later as Lodovico, the Venetian ambassador.
Otello is surely one of Verdi’s finest scores, and Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena conducted it with a sure feel for its textures, tempos, and colors, even sending a trumpet or two upstairs into the balcony to dramatic effect for Lodovico’s arrival. The Opera Carolina Chorus sang with their customary enthusiasm and precision, greatly enhancing the opening storm scene. Although they have shed their former identity as the Charlotte Symphony, the ensemble who responded to Meena’s baton – namely the Musicians of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 342 – looked and sounded reassuringly like the usual orchestral personnel.