Shakespeare’s centuries-old play Othello has been the source for many adaptations across various media, and Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 operatic rendition with David Alden’s 2014 staging for highlighted yet new aspects of the ageless story. The crumbling architecture and proliferation of grays and muted colors gave the setting a bleak and dreary miasma while the sharp, angular lights cast apparitional shadows over the characters as they moved across the stage. Thus the exultant return of Otello (Russell Thomas) from the naval battle with the Turks was simultaneously triumphant and dark, punctuated by lights fulminating in rhythm with the storm. Curiously, Arrigo Boito’s musulmano (in the chorus’ Esultate! L'orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar) was translated in the surtitles as Turk.

Russell Thomas (Otello)
© Scott Suchman

George Gagnidze brought power and passion to the tricky role of Iago, one of opera’s most iconic villains. His extended dialogues with Otello were musically captivating but sometimes semantically befuddling, with Otello seeming to have made up his mind about Desdemona’s unfaithfulness long before Iago had finished his deceitful spiel. Leah Crocetto was graceful in her brief appearances in the earlier acts, reserving her powerful upper range for the climactic Willow Song of the final act.

Otello Act 3 finale
© Scott Suchman

Zach Borichevsky imbued the character of Cassio with a suave, gallant air, tricked by the cunning Iago into inebriation. Desdemona’s maid Emilia, played by Deborah Nansteel, shone in both the sextet of the third act and the climax of the fourth. The chorus and dancers contributed well to the musical texture albeit being bogged down at times by the awkward spatial layout of the staging, scuttling from one end to another in the rear while the lead characters took the foreground.

Leah Crocetto (Desdemona) and Russell Thomas (Otello)
© Scott Suchman

The growing bond between Otello and Iago was accentuated by the rest of the characters’ apparent aversion to Otello in the majority of the scenes – even in the jubilant return from the battle at the beginning of the opera, the sense that Otello was lonely (albeit respected) was palpable. Thomas’ masterful portrayal of the role as an introspective but gullible ruler was complemented by his mighty voice, resonating powerfully even when singing supine in hushed tones, making him the star of the evening’s performance. Thomas’ “Niun mi tema” was superlative, as was Crocetto’s Willow Song, to which the audience reacted with rapturous applause.

George Gagnidze (Iago)
© Scott Suchman

David Alden’s production vaguely suggested an early 20th-century setting with largely black and olive-colored uniforms. A curious touch was the portrait of the Madonna which was used variously as a companion piece of sorts to Desdemona, as a bludgeon by Otello as he threatened to strike Desdemona, and as a dartboard by Cassio. The minimalistic staging with the perpetually decaying buildings felt logically inconsistent with the fine dress of the Venetian delegation and elsewhere in the opera, though the two uses of fire in the first and last acts provided a welcome color to the otherwise monochrome setting. The combination of a strong, spirited cast and a first-rate orchestral performance led by Daniele Callegari rendered the opera a moving experience in spite of drab staging and latent, unexplored tensions of gender roles, racial tension, and the morality of vengeance, all themes of Shakespeare's original that shine forth in Boito’s libretto and Verdi’s music.