Sunday, July 13, 2014

The great last minute soprano strikes again

So, second opera in two days, and I am very glad I got them the right way around. Because frankly, Rigoletto, as good as it was, would have seemed very dull after Otello. Not only was the production far and away better thought through (well, it was Harry Kupfer who staged it so, yeah) the singers were all amazing, and in roles that showed them off. It is also, to be frank, more satisfying musically. There are times when Rigoletto seems trite, and the orchestral writing frankly pedestrian. There is nothing pedestrian about Otello. This is Verdi at his most potent. An opera written towards the end of his life, that he spent years on, unlike some of his earlier operas rushed out in six months, utilising all his melodic and dramatic skills to present the essence of this Shakespearean tale of jealousy, deliberate lies and murder.

So, aided by much better conducting in the hands of Christian Badea, the score came alive in the telling. He drew strong, unified performances from the orchestra and the cast, even if the thunder and lightning sound effects of the opening were overdone. The rest was a model of clarity and focus.

As Otello, the Wagnerian Simon O’Neill certainly sang brilliantly, and was a fearless stage presence. Possibly not the voice you would expect for Otello, being a much brighter, higher tone than usual, he none the less was a powerful figure striding the stage, and never came close to showing signs of strain, despite the length and demands of the role. He also showed few signs of effort from negotiating the tall set (basically a huge set of stairs, that were angled off kilter), I know I would have been worn out just from travelling his route over the stage, let alone expecting me to sing!

As Iago, in many ways the heart of this piece, we had the (new to me) Italian baritone Claudio Sgura singing a role he clearly relished. A tall physically intimidating presence, he suits a big villain role. In this production, I was surprised his size was not used more to advantage, but, then again, he was not the original Iago in this production. However, he is definitely a singer I want to hear more of. A big bright sound, with plenty of snarl and malevolence to suit all those big bad villain roles.

As Cassio, we had James Egglestone, singing brilliantly. Considering the last time I heard him I was underwhelmed, I was very pleased to hear him singing well and producing such a large sound. It suggests that he was cast in the role before he was ready for it, in the last production I saw him in.

The other Australian who really impressed was Pelham Andrews as the Lodovico, the Venetian who arrives to announce the replacement for Otello. A big bass voice that sounds positively cavernous, it was positively luxury casting in such a small role. Yet, he is young, and this is exactly the sort of role he needs, as he grows as a performer, big enough to develop a character, while not pushing him into the roles he will be singing in ten years as his voice hits maturity. I look forward to watching him develop in the future.

But, ultimately, for so many reasons, this production was about the Desdemona. After all, this was the production that the (name withheld deliberately) Georgian soprano was pushed out of, owing to the outcry about her past statements regarding a gay pride event. And, to be fair, if she had sung in this performance, I would not have been there, simply because I would have saved my money for other events.

Instead, in a huge coup for Sydney audiences, we had the Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, a singer I had heard amazing things of previously, from friends in London, and seen on film. I can safely say, the descriptions were not exaggerated. She brought a big beautiful voice to the role, and a sympathetic stage presence. There was no hard or harsh sounds to be heard and lots of very beautiful ones. In this role, she totally lived up to the hype, and made us care for her fate. Her final scene with her big solo aria, was the equal of many big name sopranos we know only from recordings, and this was live, taking place in front of us. And it was good, and intense. It made me care for her future, despite knowing she was doomed. It was exactly the sort of thing we go to operas to hear. And you cannot ask for more than that.

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