For over ten years Opera Australia has used the production of Otello by the famous German director Harry Kupfer, and the stunning opening set was justification enough for its retention. As the curtain rose the chorus members plunged breakneck down the massive staircase which dominated the stage. A rich red carpet-like pattern criss-crossed the steps and up one wall, which friends seated higher up in the Circle speculated might have been in the shape of a Swastika. A gaping hole in one part of the ceiling and shattered steps beneath were suggestive of a bomb strike, and the costumes located the story in the first half of the 20th century. The massive statue of Atlas with an astrolabe on his back that dominated centre-stage right was striking although not obviously symbolic.

Shakespeare’s plot as adapted by Boito is essentially about universal human emotions, and so Otello is less period-specific than, say, Macbeth. Perhaps as a result, the modernisation remained a superficial strategy here. The characters behaved much as they might in a traditional production, and unlike John Bell’s Tosca last year (where the Napoleonic setting was updated to Mussolini’s Italy), there was little clever updating of the action. The set never changed, save for the addition of a desk and some chairs when needed. This was a disadvantage in Act IV, as the intimacy of Desdemona’s bedroom was lost. Interestingly, on-stage violence was largely eschewed: Montano and Cassio fought in the wings, Iago did not stamp on the recumbent Otello, and even Desdemona was beaten to death (not strangled) in a recess.

Otello’s opening “Esultate” is notoriously difficult. It sits high in the singer’s range, and comes after we have been exposed to the full might of the chorus and orchestra, when even the most muscular of tenors risks sounding puny. Nor does the tenor have time to ‘sing himself in’, it’s so brief. (In this it is similar to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4, where the soloist plays at the start for about 15 seconds and then (as a teacher once described it) sits back and analyses it to death during the orchestral exposition). Simon O’Neill may not have the vocal heft of a Jon Vickers, but he possesses the necessary ‘squillo’, the ringing edge to his sound that enabled him to be heard above Verdi’s orchestra. As an actor, he did have the old-school tendency to close his eyes and throw his head back, although he became more involved as the drama heated up in later acts.

Lianna Haroutounian, a late call up following the controversy that led to Tamar Iveri’s departure a fortnight ago, was warmly applauded. Perhaps because of the brevity of her time with this production, she didn’t seem fully at ease with the blocking (her reactions when Otello manhandled her were particularly unconvincing), but this will surely improve. She had some gorgeous notes above the staff; however, there were some slight but recurrent pitch issues. Her falling cry “Salce, salce, salce” during the Willow Song definitely didn’t match the cor anglais echo, although the instrumentalist may have been the more culpable here.

My favourite singer on the night was Claudio Sgura’s Iago, who was outstanding throughout. His Brindisi demonstrated not only strong vocal projection but also very convincing characterisation, something that was furthered in his Credo. In Act II he demonstrated the range of his dynamic palette, dropping his voice to a whisper when he told his master the (false) story of Cassio’s erotic dreams. Emilia (Jacqueline Dark) was simply stunning in the aftermath of Desdemona’s murder, utterly convincing as actress as well as singer. Both James Egglestone as Cassio and David Corcoran as Roderigo were adequate, while there were strong turns from Richard Anderson as Montano, and Pelham Andrews as Lodovico.

The chorus was in splendid form: as refugees in the first scene who hunkered down fearfully at every sforzato outburst in the orchestra, they were terrified and terrifying. During the victory chorus, the women donned their jewels and thereafter they seemed like after-dinner guests. “Fuoco di gioia” sparkled, with some fireworks projected onto the back wall. The charming choruses (some for children) in the middle of Act II were sadly much abbreviated, which meant we missed out on the rare opportunity to hear some virtuoso mandolin playing.

The orchestra under Christian Badea was somewhat mixed: in parts, they were excellent (the opening cello solo at the beginning of the Otello-Desdemona love duet was ravishing, and the tricky 'fire chorus' flickered); at other times there were intonation issues (such as in the exposed unison double bass passage when Otello enters in Act IV), and in the introduction to the last act, the cor anglais let out an unfortunate mood-disturbing squawk. Given how precise the AOBO was in Rigoletto recently (admittedly an easier score), one might have hoped for better things.