This contemporary version of Verdi’s Otello, set on an aircraft carrier, is a multi-national southern hemisphere production co-commissioned by Cape Town Opera, four Australian State Opera Companies and New Zealand Opera. Principal Director is Australian Simon Phillips, assisted by South African Matthew Wild, who is in control for these State Opera of South Australia performances.

Douglas McNicol (Iago) and Bradley Daley (Otello) © Darren Williams
Douglas McNicol (Iago) and Bradley Daley (Otello)
© Darren Williams

Otello is one of Verdi’s great masterpieces, exploring the dark side of humanity’s jealousy, envy and treachery. It commences with what conductor Brad Cohen describes as the loudest sound ever heard on the opera stage, and in this production it is very sudden as well as very loud. Otello has some of the most exciting music Verdi ever wrote, “gobsmackingly exciting” explains Artistic Director Timothy Sexton. With Otello Verdi’s music has moved on from his previous Aida; here every note and every word serve a purpose. The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra plays expressively, creates moods and atmospherics, and sounds almost onomatopoeic (Can one use that word of music?).

Director Simon Phillips relates how he worked with his designers to create a claustrophobic world as a pressure-cooker in which Iago’s nihilism, Otello’s emotional instability and Desdemona’s isolation would make strange and disturbing sense. He wanted a military scenario where Otello’s status as a ‘warrior’ would explain his recourse to violence. The scenes change seamlessly between bridge, claustrophobic cabins and open, spacious central hangar with a view onto the sea.

The opera commences on the bridge, with all the sophistication that goes with modern warfare – multiple video screens, technical readouts, male and female sailors in drab uniforms, computers, phones – establishing a tense background as they wait, in a stormy sea, for their new captain to come on board. Right from the start there is no doubt we are going to be thrilled by outstanding chorus singing. Miriam Gordon-Stewart, as Desdemona, is the only civilian in sight. Of her, Cassio’s “essa infiora questo lido! surtitle translates as “a breath of fresh air” – with so many sailors around indeed she is. She has returned home to Adelaide to sing the role; she commands a sweet, rich soprano capable of soaring to the angels and thrilling my ears. The scene morphs into a central hangar where the crew are partying. On the horizon enemy ships are burning, bringing new meaning to “Fuoco di gioia!” of which they sing so rousingly.

Miriam Gordon-Stewart (Desdemona) © Darren Williams
Miriam Gordon-Stewart (Desdemona)
© Darren Williams

Douglas McNicol, with a rich baritone voice, seems made to be an Iago, his evil persona seems second nature as he oozes evil intent. He has power and shade in his commanding voice, and is perhaps at his best in his smarmy, pseudo subservient poisoning of Otello’s mind against Desdemona.

Act II is where Iago beefs up his ‘get-rid-of-Otello’ campaign, convincing Cassio, played well by Bernard Hull, to ask Desdemona to intercede with Otello on his behalf. Local islanders come on board to sell their tourist wares giving the chorus an opportunity for a pleasant interlude, while Iago, in the wardroom, now bathed in a demonic, red glow, launches into his Credo. It is spine tinglingly dark and evil. Later, when Otello enters, Iago has engineered muted CCTV vision of Cassio talking with Desdemona to rouse Otello’s jealousy.

Verdi’s intricate handkerchief quartet, where Desdemona passes it to Otello, who throws it on the ground, where Emilia (sung sweetly by Catriona Barr) picks it up, and from whose hand Iago prises it, is a gem where each is singing separately of their own need, while combining in a clever unifying effect.

Meanwhile, Venice has not been completely overlooked, with a token Venetian blind installed in the wardroom preceding the arrival of the delegation from Venice. In their presence and that of the crew Otello (Bradley Daley) excels himself in his cruel and physical rant against Desdemona. Masterly singing of demented nastiness!

The final Act opens much gentler, in Otello’s claustrophobic private quarters. Desdemona sings sweetly to Emilia the beautiful Willow Song, and in her wedding nightdress sings her final Ave Maria, starting slowly and building up to a powerfully expressive prayer underscoring her innocence against the wrongful accusations she had endured, preparing for her imminent death, so movingly lingering on the last few words “nell’ora della morte”. By the time Otello arrives he is almost demented. The orchestra accompanies his determined trance-like progression through the ship to their cabin. His singing all the more expressive as he demands that Desdemona confess. Yet Bradley Daley’s Otello saves his most moving singing till the end. His final grief at Desdemona’s death so poignantly moving, his finally trinity of kisses bringing a most spectacularly sung, played and presented opera to its conclusion.

****1