Tastefully set in a more contemporary era of naval warfare, the set and costumes suggesting Second World War, Opera North’s staging of Verdi’s Otello was in many ways a traditional playing of one of Verdi’s very last operas and a fitting celebration of the composer’s anniversary year.
The opera begins not in Venice, as in Shakespeare’s play, but in the midst of a tempestuous storm scene followed by post battle celebrations. Although it took the chorus a few minutes to settle into the performance this opening act was impressive. Flawlessly choreographed around Cassio’s drunken brawl, it was both a playful and powerful start to the opera.
Ronald Samm dealt well with the notoriously demanding role of Otello, although his first entry was a little underwhelming after the dramatic opening scene. However, there were moments of truly exceptional singing to match his excellent characterisation of the brooding and tormented Otello. Similarly, David Kempster gave a solid performance as Iago.
Desdemona would have perhaps benefitted from a lighter and purer voice than that of Elena Kelessidi but her performances of Willow Song and Ave Maria in the final act were incredibly moving. Unfortunately, Desdemona’s sudden recovery after being suffocated caused a few laughs from the audience.
The orchestra, conducted by Richard Farnes performed stunningly throughout, but in the final act especially the strings send a real chill up the spines of the audience as the murderous Otello enters the bedroom. The sound of the orchestra was skilfully balanced with the singers, never overshadowing or drowning out those on stage.
Under the direction of Tim Albery this Otello strikes an excellent balance between a contemporary take on the opera while also allowing the music of Verdi and the opera itself to take centre stage.