Except for a significant decision about the title character's make-up, and some fleeting projections, Opéra de Montréal's new production of Otello is all about tradition. It's an old tale told well, a stalwart of the operatic canon presented with care and respect, as a strong principal cast ably draws the audience into a musically and emotionally compelling heart of darkness.

Kristian Benedikt (Otello) © Yves Renaud
Kristian Benedikt (Otello)
© Yves Renaud
Verdi's penultimate opera, first performed in 1887 at La Scala, is closely based on Shakespeare's Othello, but strips the play down to its dramatic kernel and has little time for anyone but the three central characters. The Moorish-Venetian war hero Otello's success, ethnicity and beautiful new bride excite admiration but also jealousy, especially in the heart of his ensign, Iago. Persuaded by this villainous and duplicitous man that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful, Otello quickly reveals the flaws in his emotional armour, and tragedy ensues.

In the title role, Lithuanian Kristian Benedikt was a powerhouse of love, jealousy and rage. Dramatically he conveyed these characteristics with the force necessary to make the climax believable, but at first the slight inconsistency of his vocal performance on opening night was puzzling, as flashes of imperfect control undercut his dark tenor's strength and agility. Soon, however, a few surreptitious coughs suggested Benedikt was performing despite ill health, which was all the more admirable as he incorporated the occasional cough into Otello's expressions of rage and despair, and sang with passion. It was a performance of great conviction.

As Desdemona, Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura also pleased as both singer and actor. The epitome of the sweet, loving bride who becomes stricken by grief and fear, she sang with extraordinary expression and emotional intensity. In the dramatic Willow Song in particular, her voice soared powerfully from pianissimo and mezzo-lows, to top notes of exquisite purity. Aris Argiris' Iago was also compelling, his phrasing and dark, sinuous baritone nicely matched to the sinister nature of his character.

Hiromi Omura (Desdemona) © Yves Renaud
Hiromi Omura (Desdemona)
© Yves Renaud

Hailing from Greece, Argiris rounded out the international central trio of Otello, Desdemona and Iago. While the quality of this casting is of primary concern, and certainly well done on this occasion, it's a pity that a local singer could not be cast in one of these principal roles. Canadians (and one American) were left to make what they could of what are essentially bit parts, with Antonie Bélanger and Lauren Segal pleasing as Cassio and Emilia. As always, the Opéra de Montréal Chorus impressed vocally and dramatically, with their movements around the confined set noticeably well rehearsed. Under the baton of Keri-Lynn Wilson, the Orchestre symphoniqe de Montréal admirably expressed the melodic drama of Verdi's score, without overwhelming the sights and sounds on stage.

A co-production with BC's Pacific Opera Victoria, Glynis Leyshon's Otello is set in the Venetian Empire of Shakespeare's day. The authentically styled costumed are notable for their rich detail and, in the case of Desdemona in particular, unadorned fabrics that catch the eye with their gracious, draping lines. These costumes stand out on a small, plain set also designed by Peter Hartwell. Essentially comprising several columns and a long, central platform (that is everything from a jetty to a bed), it was presumably designed for a smaller space, as the set blocks off a large proportion of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier stage.

Kristian Benedikt (Otello) © Yves Renaud
Kristian Benedikt (Otello)
© Yves Renaud

Guy Simard's dramatic lighting does much to activate this humble set, while scene-setting projections, cast onto drapery that comes and goes from the gods, is inconsistently effective. The opera begins with striking images of stormy waves so violent that they may induce seasickness in some audience members, but later projections of Venetian architecture and animated birds are bland.

It's rare that make-up is remarkable enough to warrant mention, but in this case Shakespeare's “sooty Moor” is notable for not being in black or even brown face, as was the norm until recently. Benedikt seems merely a little more tanned than the rest of the cast, and what minor disconnect that causes between a reference to Otello's “dark temples” and the reality, is of considerably less consequence than perpetuating a racist theatrical tradition.