Fresh from their success as Calaf and Liu in Opera Australia’s Turandot, South Koreans Yonghoon Lee and Karah Son triumphantly returned to the Sydney Opera House for Verdi’s tale of love destroyed by jealousy. Together with Italian Marco Vratogna and a capable Australian supporting cast, they brought vocal splendour and palpable drama to a well-worn, somewhat flawed production of Otello.

Yonghoon Lee (Otello) and Karah Son (Desdemona)
© Prudence Upton

First performed in 1887 at La Scala, Verdi's penultimate opera is closely based on Shakespeare's Othello, but it strips the play down to its dramatic kernel. It focuses almost entirely on three characters: esteemed Moorish-Venetian general Otello; his loving wife, Desdemona; and his scheming ensign, Iago, who persuades Otello that his new bride is unfaithful. In this 2003 production by the late Harry Kupfer, here revived by director Luke Joslin, the action takes place in the great hall of the Venetian empire's Cyprus headquarters, but during the mid-20th century with suitably fascist trappings.

Lee (happily without any apparent dark make-up) makes his role debut as Otello in a manner that suggests this will be the first of many outings. Just the power of his voice was enough to make one sit up and take notice on opening night, while the finely controlled agility and expressiveness of his warm tenor made this performance genuinely exciting. With tall stature and stern demeanour, Lee embodied the heroic leader, then conveyed his character’s mental disintegration mostly without overdoing the melodrama inherent in the role.

Marco Vratogna (Iago) and Yonghoon Lee (Otello)
© Prudence Upton

Son was equally compelling, expressing Desdemona’s love and sorrow with beautifully rounded soprano notes, and carefully considered and executed vocal dynamics – as well as physical stillness and graceful gestures. In a consistently excellent performance, her poignant Act 4 double aria was particularly exquisite. Nailing his signature role, Vratogna suggested Iago’s brutality in every step and look, as well as the rich baritone he wields with just-restrained force and dramatic phrasing.

Marco Vratogna (Iago)
© Prudence Upton

Next to these three mighty roles and talents, the supporting cast had little chance to shine, but notable among them are tenor Virgilio Marino (Cassio), mezzo Sian Sharp (Emilia) and bass Richard Anderson (Lodovico). The massed Opera Australia Chorus made a huge impact vocally as well as physically from the get-go, when they rushed up and down the set’s stairs as if embodying the great unseen waves they described. Voices and Opera Australia Orchestra were nicely balanced under the baton of Andrea Battistoni, who also showed a sure hand with both the intensity and melodic delicacy of Verdi’s score. 

Those stairs the rushing chorus somehow don’t trip on dominate Hans Schavernoch’s great-hall set. All but filling the stage, the stairs enable physical drama as the cast move up, down and across them, but what are essentially black wooden bleachers are strangely insubstantial in an otherwise formal space of faded antique Venetian opulence and Italian fascist monumentalism. They also inevitably creak underfoot, which can knock a perfectly poised moment off kilter. In the middle of the stairs, a large statue of Atlas with the world on his shoulders suggests Otello, a master of military matters weighed down by unfounded jealousy. Evidence of a bomb having crashed through the stairs also hints at a gaping psychological flaw in this great man.

Marco Vratogna (Iago) and Sian Sharp (Emilia)
© Prudence Upton

Initially these evocative metaphorical features are interesting. However, but for wicker furniture glimpsed behind louvered doors on a mezzanine stage at the top of the stairs in one scene, and a desk downstage in another, the single great-hall set remain unchanged through the four acts. The production becomes visually dull, despite Yan Tax’s mid-century military uniforms and glamorous gowns, and even incongruous when the fatal bedroom scene occurs in what we have come to understand is a vast public space.

The cast of Otello
© Prudence Upton

While one might grow weary of this Otello’s grim, unchanging set, the musical thrills hardly stop until the curtain falls on Lee and Son’s lifeless lovers. Catch them when and wherever you can.