Amid red carpets and canapés, the Lyric Opera’s 2013/14 season opened on Saturday night with a work that perfectly suited the storm gathering above as ball-gowned luminaries swept into the hall: Verdi’s Otello, that late masterpiece of mood and terraced intensities. In a way, it is an ideal work to open a season, since it is such a strong opera that it will survive dreary stagings and singer catastrophes. As it happened, it had to do both: first weathering the spatially static interiors of designer John Gunter and director Ashley Dean (the original director for this production was Sir Peter Hall), then surmounting the removal of Falk Struckmann as Iago after the first act, felled by vocal trouble that was already evident in the raucous “Beva con me!”

Johan Bothan and Ana María Martinez © Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago
Johan Bothan and Ana María Martinez
© Dan Rest / Lyric Opera of Chicago

Not that that extra bit of drama was unwelcome. The history of opera stardom is written over with the miracles of understudies, and when the curtain rose on Todd Thomas in Act II, freshly dressed as Iago and poised to launch into that character’s most significant set piece of the opera, the audience was at seat’s-edge. Thomas’ baritone showed no nerves, but his embodiment of Shakespeare’s most remorseless villain was, unfortunately, little more than a placeholder for a true physical conception of that role. Iago so controls Acts II and III in Verdi’s drama that the actor who plays him must seem an invisible puppeteer, obsequious or cajoling in his words but preternaturally dominant in his presence.

To such a forceful Iago, Johan Botha’s Otello would have been the immovable object that gradually begins to quake, and then collapse. The hero’s entrance in the first act is famous as much for its brevity as its power; Botha’s approach was not to expend himself fully on those lines, but rather to gambol on stage in his own time, letting the resonance and carry of his voice convince rather than an edge of passion. It would, however, be a mistake to confuse Botha’s placidity with a lack of characterization. This Otello does not break down in hysterics, and yet one senses the ground shift irrevocably behind his slow surface as Iago grinds away at his reason. The tragedy of this self-betrayal is clear enough without histrionics.

Besides, as the critic Joseph Kerman has observed, Verdi reserved his tragic intensity for Desdemona, to whom the majority of the last act is devoted. Ana María Martinez gives her an earthiness and a humanity that is far from Shakespeare’s too-pure vision of female fidelity; the duet between her and Julie Anne Miller’s Emilia is a wonderful counterbalance to the masculine duets that dominate the first three acts of the work. Too bad the conception of the stage as a multi-storeyed enclosure of blinded windows does little to animate the radical shifts between publicity and privacy, between love and the cruelest deception, that mark the events of Verdi’s most dramatically continuous and nuanced tragedy. Yet it is easy enough to focus on the music and listen; that achievement is always sustenance enough.