Chances are that when thinking of operas that would pair well with a Sunday evening picnic, Otello would not likely be the first choice to come to mind. Nonetheless, it was Verdi’s late masterpiece – the three-hour long De Profundis of a paranoid, would-be cuckold – that met the throngs of revelers on Sunday evening. The dish was served by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Gustavo Dudamel: spicy and hot in some of the sides, but somewhat lukewarm and bland in the main course.

Russell Thomas © Fay Fox
Russell Thomas
© Fay Fox

The eponymous title role fell to Russell Thomas, a sweet-voiced tenor whose voice conveyed defeat even before the real action took place. To be sure, his was an attractive instrument that would make for a fine Tamino or Rodolfo. But Otello is an “alpha male”, a conquering hero of iron whose delusions make a ruin of his life. By contrast, Thomas’ Otello appeared to be a craven weakling who, despite protestations to the contrary, could very well have derived gratification over his wife’s betrayal. It was an Otello that was a little too good-natured, a little too yielding. He was affecting and moving in the opera’s lyrical moments. But these honeyed moments are meant as a contrast in order to demonstrate that this man of steel is capable of tenderness and vulnerability after all. Instead one heard an Otello that was a velvet fist in a velvet glove.

His Desdemona, superbly sung by Julianna di Giacomo, was something else altogether. Whereas Watson’s Otello was a self-pitying creature, Di Giacomo’s Desdemona conveyed a vitality and strength curiously lacking in her partner. Likewise, George Gagnidze’s depraved Iago easily upstaged his Otello. Laughter borne from the blackest pits of the human heart, the cackling of evil incarnate, animated his splendid characterization.

The conducting of the opera by Gustavo Dudamel was, in its wayward manner, of a piece with the nature of Sunday night’s proceedings. It was engaged and vital at crucial dramatic moments, listless and on virtual autopilot through long stretches. Whether it is to Rossini, Gounod, or Shaw that one can ascribe the perhaps apocryphal quip regarding Wagner’s operas having “beautiful moments, but dreadful half-hours”, it is a gripe that unfortunately better suits Verdi. The orchestra in Wagner is always moving, always developing. In Verdi it sometimes trembles nervously when forced to take center stage without the backing of voices. It takes a strong directorial hand to maintain musical focus. Dudamel has proved his mettle as a symphonic conductor, but as an operatic one he is still a work-in-progress. Operas require a conductor who understands the large-scale architecture of the genre and can impart the illusion of unraveling its dramas as if in a single breath. Dudamel is not quite ready to convey a work like Otello in one gulp. Sunday’s performance indicated that he needed quite a few breaths and several glasses of water besides.

But there were moments, rare and precious, when the stars aligned just right and, for a moment, the performance was perched upon the sublime. When Di Giacomo set forth on her rapt, heart-wrenching Ave Maria, Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were of a single mind with her. For a moment the audience vanished, the shell of the Hollywood Bowl dissolved into the starlit sky, and one was convincingly swept along by the force and humanity of Verdi’s art.

***11