Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
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​​by Paul Merkley F.R.S.C.
oronto ON May 4th 2019

The love duet in the first act was beautifully staged, with the protagonists touching and standing back to back. Tamara Wilson’s (Desdemona) voice was exquisite, beautifully moving in the duet, expressive in all ranges and dynamics. 

Tamara Wilson as Desdemona and Russell Thomas as Otello in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Last night’s performance of Otello was a moving experience. The opera is the second-last of Verdi’s output (he finished the music in 1887; Arrigo Boito who, years earlier, had criticized Verdi for sticking too closely to formal traditions, drafted the libretto in 1879) and, while it still features some traditional aria forms and elements, it is an artistic world away from his early operas. As an artistic endeavour, it was designed as the Italian equivalent of Richard Wagner’s immersive, total-art-work music dramas.

The music-dramatic units are long (whole acts). There is no overture; instead the opera begins with the precarious landing of Otello’s ship. For this opening the chorus was effectively deployed, visually and musically, giving the sense of people waiting on shore for the outcome of the battle and whether the ship would survive the landing during the storm.

The house was full, and the production drew the audience in.

Russell Thomas gave a strong musical and dramatic performance of the title role, a demanding one for a tenor in that Verdi’s singer was ending his career and was willing to spend all of his vocal longevity on it.

The opera was set in the modern period, with soldiers wearing uniforms and greatcoats, and other characters wearing suits and top hats. The sets were stark and dark, befitting the heaviness of the subject. The lighting (Adam Silverman lighting designer) was dramatic, especially the use of shadows. As Otello’s unbridled jealousy grew, his shadow loomed large on the walls, suggesting the enormity of his rage. The shadows seemed to function as the large, looming threatening parts of the characters’ personalities.

Russell Thomas (centre) as Otello in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Verdi’s Otello at the Canadian Opera Company: murder, misleading, and beautiful ​music

Tamara Wilson as Desdemona in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

In the last act, Wilson's rendition of the Willow Song was heart rending; she drew on all facets of her rich vocal palette. Verdi demanded many drafts of the libretto from Boito, and for the Willow Song, the composer ultimately chose lines from three different versions of the libretto. When Wilson sang the words “O salce” (Oh willow), the character’s anguish was palpable; ditto the prayer. The oboe and English horn (Mark Rogers and Lesley Young) played the soulful introduction to this song.

Gerald Finley played the despicable, scheming Iago, source of all the violence. He has a beautiful, agile voice, and it brought his character out very well, especially Iago’s diabolical ‘Credo,’ in which the character confesses his belief in a cruel God who had cast Iago in His own image. Shakespeare’s play and the opera might more accurately be called “Iago.” That character sets all the conflicts in motion.

Johannes Debus conducted expertly. The chorus and orchestra performed expressively, and the tempi were well chosen.

Five more performances remain, on May 9, 12, 15. 18, and 21. Anyone who appreciates opera will love this production. Don’t miss it!