There’s a certain “dog walking on its hind legs” quality to a company at this level taking on Verdi’s Otello, and I must admit I came to it wondering how the score would survive a reduced orchestration. I needn’t have worried. Entering St Johns Waterloo, we were confronted by an orchestra at least the size of Covent Garden’s, and the opening chord almost took the roof off. But if the orchestration was Verdi’s original, there was a rather unusual chordal drone coming from somewhere during the storm scene, and investigations during the interval revealed the presence of an electric organ, presumably drafted in to bulk up the harmony (did ever a score need it less?).

© ElyRose Promotions
© ElyRose Promotions

Thrilling though it was to hear a full size orchestra at such close proximity, it gave the singers a lot to compete with – from my seat in the front row they were consistently audible, situated as they were between us and the orchestra, but I’m told that wasn’t the case elsewhere in the hall. This thin strip of ground, with a platform built at one end, made for quite an awkward performance space, and visibility couldn’t have been great for anyone sitting further back. Semi-staging is generally harder to bring off than the full monty, often setting up expectations it can’t satisfy. The programme doesn’t list a director, but the grapevine has it that this was taken on by John Upperton in addition to his work as chorus master, doing the company’s admin and… what was it? oh yes… singing the role of Otello. That’s a lot for one man to do, and in general I’m not convinced of the wisdom of directing something you’re also acting in (on stage, I mean – for obvious reasons it can work in film). In the end what we got was more blocking than directing, relying on the abilities of individual singers to act their roles.

Which brings me to Andrew Mayor’s Iago. He has a splendid voice for the role, which is no small matter, but dramatically he’s a silent movie villain born 100 years too late, the impression unfortunately compounded by the capes the characters are wearing against the storm in the opening scene (at least he didn’t have a moustache to twirl). His acting consists entirely of stiff arm gestures which die when they reach his shoulders. He also seemed to have memory problems – including, surprisingly, in his big moment, the Credo. (On which subject, since we’re in a church, could he not have delivered this from the pulpit?).

Desdemona was taken by Lorraine Ely. She has a pleasant voice, but was consistently under the note for almost the whole evening (and for once it can’t be because she couldn’t hear the orchestra). This was inevitably most noticeable in the Willow song, where the cor anglais that was supposed to be echoing her was often a full semitone higher. Among the smaller roles, James Scarlett’s Cassio and Cheyney Kent’s Montano stood out, both vocally and dramatically, the former wisely resisting the temptation to overdo the drunk acting.

But vocal honors undoubtedly go to Upperton’s impressive Otello – an unusually lyrical voice for the role, certainly, but not in any way lacking in drama. His quality showed in the exposed high notes at the end of the first act, as daunting in their way as the excesses of the opening Esultate, and he wisely resorted to head notes when necessary. He also rose to the acting challenges of a role that, aside from a studio recording, Pavarotti famously fought shy of.

David Roblou gave an accomplished account of the score, bringing out the dancelike quality of Innaffia l’ugola especially, though he might have wallowed in the big moments a little more. The large orchestra, Midsummer Opera’s own, was generally impressive with just a few moments where their ensemble let them down, and some tuning problems amongst the doubles basses at the start of the fourth act. Costumes were generally suitable for the period, aside from Iago’s snazzy waistcoat which seemed to have dropped in from a Weimar-period cabaret. The chorus sometimes struggled with their higher notes, tenors especially, and had as much trouble as the soloists being heard over the orchestra.