Few operas begin as arrestingly as Verdi’s Otello; no overture here – or, indeed, the first act of Shakespeare’s play. Instead, in a single galvanising orchestral outburst a terrific storm is set in motion, underpinned by the most gratingly dissonant of pedals in the lowest reaches of the organ. In Tim Albery’s new production for Opera North, however, the curtain rises long before the first note has sounded and, after a painfully long period in which the audience has to watch two maids mopping a floor, Iago, played here by David Kempster, is seen at the back of the stage flicking an electrical switch, the act which triggers the subsequent turmoil.

Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago in Opera North’s production of Verdi’s Otello © Clive Barda
Ronald Samm as Otello and David Kempster as Iago in Opera North’s production of Verdi’s Otello
© Clive Barda

What this increased inclusion of Iago in Act I served to do was make the extent of his evil explicit from the start – but both this, and the decision to have him hiding in the shadows listening in on Otello and Desdemona’s love duet, seemed ill-judged, simplifying rather than complicating his character and the drama as a whole. In Boito’s libretto, the true extent of Iago’s evil is first revealed in his Act II “Credo” which, due to Albery’s decisions here, lost much of its dramatic power and significance.

All the same, it was easy to see and hear why Albery chose to give Kempster’s Iago additional emphasis in this production; he displays a vocal strength and command of his role which is absent from both of the other two principal singers. His lyrical tone was beguiling in Iago’s fabricated narration of Cassio’s dream and the sensitive interplay between him and the sweet-voiced Cassio of Michael Lee Wade produced many of the most vocally accomplished moments of the evening.

Unfortunatly, Ronald Samm didn’t display the vocal security or the beauty of tone to convince in Otello’s heroic opening sortita, “Esultate!” Elsewhere his musical interpretation overlooked important nuances and he failed to find a sufficient range of colours to convey his character’s complex and dynamic emotional state. His acting lacked the physicality to make his presence on stage truly threatening (it didn’t help that he was often sat down, or slumped on the floor when delivering important lines) whilst one didn’t really sense much chemistry between him and Elena Kelessidi’s Desdemona.

After struggling to fully capture the utter confusion of Otello’s blameless lover in the opera’s early stages, Kelessidi came into her own in the final act. Despite a lack of richness in her tone, which meant her voice never floated on top of the orchestra as one would have wanted, her “Willow Song” was heartfelt and intensely moving. In her final farewell to her maid, Ann Taylor’s horror-struck Emilia, she gave her all, though the full impact of this overwhelming outburst was denied through her position on stage – one of several moments in the opera where characters where made to deliver important lines with the backs to the audience. Moreover, the disturbing fact that a portion of the audience chuckled with disbelief at Desdemona’s dying expression of innocence is a sad reflection of the failure of the cast and director to adequately communicate the crux of this truly heart-rending drama.

An enlarged Chorus of Opera North tackled the first act’s many set pieces with great zeal, relishing not just their expansive quality but also the finer details of Verdi’s rhythmic patter. The staging here, however, let them down, being at first far too static and then later, in the brindisi (drinking song), featuring some absolutely cringe-worthy dancing. Albery’s skill was much more evident in his handling of the Act III ensemble – one of Verdi’s most ambitious – where each of its different dramatic strands was immediately comprehensible.

The decision to relocate the drama to a Second World War US naval camp worked well, and without problems, whilst Leslie Travers’ simple yet ingenious two-part set was reconfigured throughout the evening to provide a series of ever more claustrophobic spaces to mirror the trajectory of the drama. Not all the risks taken with lighting were successful (the opening storm was a little too dark) but elsewhere Thomas Hase created some wonderfully atmospheric shadows for Otello and Iago to lurk in unseen. In the pit, Richard Farnes delivered a well-paced and often rhythmically charged reading. At times his orchestra struggled to capture some of the finer details of Verdi’s writing, though the brass were superb, both in the doom-laden interlude before the Act III ensemble and in the grinding, mournful chords which precede Otello’s suicide.