In the United States, there is a saying: “Go big, or go home.” This week’s concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was an example of “Going big and almost not going home.” As it has done over the several past seasons, the ASO artistic leadership decided to stage an opera in a concert setting with no props, no scenery, no costumes and almost no acting. Instead, there is simply chorus, soloists, and orchestra.

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Desdemona) and Russell Thomas (Otello) © Jeff Roffman
Mary Elizabeth Williams (Desdemona) and Russell Thomas (Otello)
© Jeff Roffman

This year, Verdi’s 1887 Otello was the featured opera, presented in a concert format that lasted nearly three hours. The concert setting morphs the original opera into an oratorio and by doing so significantly shifts the focus of the performance from theatricality to the music, vocalists, and libretto. Absent the other pieces of the operatic theatrical superstructure, and the Boito-authored libretto moves center stage as the primary storyteller. In this setting, it seems to buckle under the weight of Iago’s psychopathy and Otello’s pride and gullibility; as a result, the story seemed weak and underdeveloped. Without sufficient dramatic supports in the concert hall, the handkerchief becomes merely a piece of cloth meant to symbolize massive amounts of psychological turmoil, intrigue, and mischief. As overheard from a patron during the intermission: “It’s a rather silly story, isn’t it?” Such a reaction is an unfortunate by-product of spotlighting a libretto that reads like a condensed version of Shakespeare’s complex and powerful masterwork.

The ASO Chorus (prepared by choirmaster Norman MacKenzie) is renowned for its power, articulation, and ensemble and it is much larger than might be seen in the usual opera house production of Otello. At times it seemed too big, too loud, and almost too rehearsed to sympathetically portray the citizens of Cyprus, acting at times as a mob, and at times as a Greek chorus commenting on the unfolding drama. But this is a top-tier choral ensemble that might benefit from a larger, more reverberant acoustic venue than Atlanta’s Symphony Hall. However, ASO Music Director Robert Spano molded and shaped the choral performance to the peak of technical perfection. 

The ASO strings © Jeff Roffman
The ASO strings
© Jeff Roffman

The soloists had the difficult job of adding heft to the libretto without the benefit of being allowed to act, other than glancing or giving an emotion-laden facial expression or an outstretched arm. The soloists walked onto the stage and then sat on chairs facing the audience, only rising when needed to sing their part. Each exited the stage when no longer needed. As the heroine Desdemona, soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams was notable for the considerable power in her voice, but at times – at full volume and at the top of her range – her voice almost sounded like a microphone driven to clipping (although the soloists were not mic’d). At lower volumes, she did produce a rich, full sound that nicely suited, for example, the beautiful and tender “Willow Song” of the fourth act. Tenor Russell Thomas is generating much excitement these days for his strong performances. Here, he did not have quite the power of the other soloists, and in his first-act duet with Williams (“Now in the dark night all noise is silenced”), his voice was a bit underpowered. He also did not have a command of the stage as some of his colleagues did. At one point, upon returning to his on-stage seat, he slouched down with his legs stretched out and casually crossed his ankles; he seemed to forget that he was in full view of the audience.

The real vocal stand out of the evening was baritone Nmon Ford (no relation), who played the manipulative ensign Iago. Having won several major performance awards, he has built an international reputation in opera houses and concert halls alike. He has an exquisitely clear and controlled voice, and has a very strong stage presence. He knows how to angle his body, dart his eyes, or sit with rigid posture to convey the subtlest of emotions. His vocal skills, in addition to his elegant presentation, made his Iago both charming and treacherous. Ford has been a guest soloist with the ASO many times, and this was a particularly memorable performance in this challenging concert-opera setting. The other soloists were uniformly strong in their varied supporting roles.

The ASO, under the baton of Maestro Spano, performed nearly without flaw. Especially compelling were the English horn and bassoon accompanying Ford in some of his solos.  Their timbre, dynamics, and volume were a perfect match for his supple voice. In all this was a very good, if rather long, performance of a popular opera in a concert setting, even given the limitations of the format.  Maestro Spano seems to enjoy these performances, and they do shed new light (if not always flattering) on some major operatic works.