‘Otello’ star brings power
to a difficult role

Hawaii Opera Theatre opened its 2004 season with an impressive performance of Verdi's "Otello," the last of the composer's tragic operas and one that many commentators believe to be his best work. Verdi had a longstanding affinity for the plays of Shakespeare, as demonstrated by his earlier setting of "Macbeth," performed by HOT in 1998, and it was the opportunity to set the powerful tale of the Moor of Venice and his tragic jealousy that enticed him to come out of retirement a decade and a half after "Aïda."

"Otello": Presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre at Blaisdell Concert Hall. Repeats at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $29 to $100. Call 596-7858.

This year's production of "Otello" is based on a production staged by HOT artistic director Henry Akina at the Mecklenburg State Opera in Schwerin, Germany, in 2000. It features an "industrial" set characteristic of set designers in the former East Germany. The back of the stage is dominated by a gigantic winged lion, symbolizing the power of the protagonist that deteriorates in tandem with Otello's deterioration. The bare platforms and metal poles that dominate the stage are effective in allowing a clear view of the lion, but they emitted disconcerting rattles and clanks whenever a character climbed the steps.

Akina's staging creates impressive tableaus at key points in the opera, most notably the end of Act III, when the chorus is herded by armed soldiers into a striking diagonal. The final visual image of the act is even more evocative and must be seen to be appreciated. Akina's attention to detail creates some interesting moments, for instance at the end of Act I, when Desdemona drops her handkerchief downstage center and Otello retrieves it for her. This prefigures the crucial scene in Act II when she loses it again with devastating results.

This opera, like the play on which it is based, centers on one character and his tragic flaw. Verdi's score demands tremendous passion and endurance from the lead tenor, who must be equally adept at the tender love duet, the heroic scenes of martial grandeur and the deranged soliloquy of Act III. Mark Lundberg, who arrived in town barely a week before opening night, demonstrated the vocal firepower to pull off the role in impressive style.

Lundberg is a Heldentenor (heroic tenor), and as is often the case with this voice type, he towered over the other cast members. His size was matched by a powerful voice that carried effectively over Verdi's heavy orchestration, even when competing with the large complement of brass players. The role is often half sung-half shouted, but thankfully Lundberg resorted to only a little of the latter. His lyric lines in the opening act were beautifully shaped. Perhaps most impressive was his endurance, as he preserved his strength through the arduous second and third acts, showing little evidence of fatigue.

The role of Iago was sung by Gary Simpson, who has a strong, pleasant voice and a good sense of melodic phrasing. This character, however, is one of the vilest villains ever to set foot on stage, and his abject wickedness is what drives the plot. Simpson did not have the look or the sound necessary to strike terror into the audience. Rather than inciting a mild-mannered Otello to passionate jealousy, he seemed to have trouble matching the energy level of the leading character.

Robin Follman brought strong acting skills to the role of Desdemona, whose purity is a foil to the evil that consumes Iago and eventually Otello. She matched Lundberg's power in the heavier sections, but did not capitalize as effectively on the pianissimo passages that Verdi wrote for her fragile, innocent character.

Cassio was played by Jonathan Boyd, whose small frame and light, lyric tenor were an ideal contrast to the towering physique and voice of Otello.

Among supporting characters, mezzo Dorothy Byrne was an audience favorite as Emilia, John Mount sang the role of Lodovico with regal authority, James Scott Sikon made the most of the role of Montano and James Price did a fine job with Roderigo.

In contrast to Verdi's earlier works, the orchestra plays an important role in the drama. While not as integral as in Wagner's works, the orchestra's role in Verdi's late works was clearly increased because of the German composer's influence. The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Ivan Törzs, did a stellar job of interpreting the score. In addition to powerful climaxes for the full orchestra, there were many prominent solos, most notably a long cello solo by Karen Bechtel introducing the first-act love duet, substantial English horn solos by Jason Sudduth in the final act and some impressive fanfares for six trumpets in Act III.

HOT audiences have been treated to two of Verdi's three Shakespearean operas. Perhaps it will be possible to complete the trilogy with "Falstaff," the composer's swan song and the only opera composed after the success of "Otello."

E. Douglas Bomberger is an associate professor of music at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.


E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --