Review: At L.A. Opera, Russell Thomas is an Otello for our time
Los Angeles Opera began last week with the Pulitzer Prize announcement that “Omar,” the acclaimed new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, was being honored as the year's best musical composition. A co-commissioner of “Omar,” L.A. Opera gave the West Coast premiere in October. This is already the third premiere by America’s youngest major opera company to be honored by the Pulitzers: Ellen Reid’s “prism” won in 2019 and Elliot Goldenthal's "Grendel" was a finalist in 2007.
Angelenos woke up on Saturday to the New York Times featuring L.A. Opera as a happening operation, a company rife with innovation. It lived up to the reputation well last month when it presented a troubling, timely pair of experimental operas, Emma O’Halloran’s “Trade/Mary Motorhead,” in the black-box REDCAT.
Another of L.A. Opera’s accomplishments has been to make going to the opera a trendy occasion. Its audience loves to dress with Hollywood flair and pose for selfies. All of that adds — you might say operatically — welcome glamour to the otherwise dowdy Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which is in desperate need of renovation.
So it was Saturday for the first night of L.A. Opera’s final production of the season. There was frisson. There was Verdi’s “Otello,” staring Russell Thomas in the title role. There was a full cast of powerhouse singers. And there was a sporting crowd cheering them on.
The curtain rose with startling suddenness. “Otello” begins with a spectacular storm, and with no warning, the company's music director, James Conlon, had the orchestra erupt as though a tornado of tremendous force had suddenly blown into the hall. On the set, designed like a ship, a large lantern violently swung back and forth, dizzy-making. The chorus burst out in terror.
It was exciting, but the chorus wasn’t exactly together. The set made no sense because the people on it were supposed to be at the harbor watching Otello’s ship attempt to avoid disaster. Could another of L.A. Opera’s accomplishments be to make even a dated production somehow retro hip?
“Otello” does have historic relevance for L.A. Opera (short as the company's history may be). The company, called Music Center Opera at the time, opened with the Verdi opera in 1996 starring Plácido Domingo, the leading Otello of the day. A powerfully brooding original production by the famed German director Götz Friedrich remained with the company until 2008, when it turned to a less imaginative one by veteran British director John Cox. That production takes place entirely on the steeply sloped ship hull (unconvincingly serving as stateroom, assembly room, bedroom and more). The Cox production now returns with Joel Ivany directing.
Slightly elevated from the stage floor, the set (by Johan Engels, who also designed the costumes) makes everyone feel far away. The lighting is dark, so it's hard to catch individuals' expressions. The singers look at the audience more than at one another.
The singing, as has often been the case lately at L.A. Opera, remains the thing. Conlon has quipped that the opera could just as easily have been called “Iago,” given just how acutely Verdi renders evil. Updated stagings of “Otello” to fascist eras can be as effective as they are obvious.
For now, with Thomas as a compelling Otello, we can stick with Verdi's title. Thomas does not have a big voice. He is dwarfed vocally by Igor Golovatenko’s beautifully resonant Iago and Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s resounding Desdemona. But what Thomas does bring is a sense of inner torment. He may take that dramatically a bit too far, but his burnished tenor brings a heartbreaking beauty even to big, overwrought emotions.
This was not a heroic Otello belting out his opening, “Esultate,” in the glory of having triumphantly landed his storm-tossed ship. Thomas' voice barely filled the hall, but there was ringing beauty to his tenor and focus to his projection that allowed him be heard and, better still, understood.
He arrives in Venice not as a blustering leader but more as man of the people, and vulnerable. That he might be susceptible to Iago's treacherous insinuations of Desdemona's unfaithfulness, jealousy seems a natural response. Golovatenko's Iago, moreover, comes across as more bro than monster. The words may be wily, but the Russian baritone, whether poisoning Otello with lies or hosting a drinking song, sings with agreeable gusto. It’s up to the listener to figure out whether that makes him unbelievable or especially scary.
Willis-Sørensen, a young American soprano in her L.A. Opera debut, is a true Verdian, a spinto soprano with a voluptuous tone. We are surely going to be hearing more of her. But she all too easily drowned out Thomas, and it wasn’t until the last act, stunning in her “Willow Song,” when she could bring something personal to the role.
That act was poorly staged, but Thomas, Willis-Sørensen and Conlon brought to it an arresting intensity. Story-wise, the opera begins well and ends horribly. Saturday night, performance-wise, it was the other way around. Stay for the end.
Anthony Ciaramitaro’s Cassio, Anthony León’s Roderigo, Sarah Saturnino’s Emila, the ever imposing Morris Robinson’s Lodovico and the others in the cast all served the music well. But they weren't always helped by the staging, particularly when sophomoric swordplay was involved.
Thomas, who is L.A. Opera’s artist in residence, ultimately requires a production and a theater with more intimacy to meaningfully bring out the interior core he is reaching for in his Otello. Still, what he does reveal in the Chandler is impressive. He dominates not by having the loudest voice onstage but by the far great power of expressivity. He is a complex Otello, trapped in anachronistic surroundings, for our time.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.