Admittedly, I am a bit out of practice reviewing here on the blog. My writing energies have been elsewhere, and you can see some recent things now available and forthcoming from Shakespeare Bulletin and others. Being no expert in the adaptive nuances of Shakespeare and opera, some thoughts about Gustavo Dudamel‘s one-night performance of Otello with the LA Philharmonic seemed a good fit to jump back in to blogging. (I suspect there are special issues out there on just this topic; I more than welcome any recommendations you have! The LA Times offers a detailed expert review here.) My first career was as a classical musician, so I couldn’t miss the chance to catch the rockstar of conducting ply his hand at what is widely considered Verdi’s most moving consideration of Shakespeare.
If you’ve seen Mozart in the Jungle, you have a sense of Dudamel’s swagger: Gael García Bernal’s character is based on him. A stranger to Southern California culture, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was brilliantly surprised. The Bowl has the same vibe as Ravinia, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and one of my all-time favorite music venues. Patrons out-do themselves packing-in lavish and wine-laden picnics in wheeled wicker baskets. Tickets are reasonable, seating spacious, and speakers are well positioned to make sure the sound evenly and correctly makes its way up the natural amphitheater. While opera glasses and cushions were readily available, high-end jumbotrons were evenly spaced along the edges to ensure no details were missed—and supplemented with discrete subtitles. I myself went for dead-center noes-bleeds, jumbo-sized street tacos, and a local rosé, keeping the total cost under $40. I considered that a steal to see one of the premiere symphonic interpreters in North America and what turned out to be a Verdi specialist, Russell Thomas, in the title role.
As a Shakespearean, the most immediate question the play poses for me is: can you do it without all the business before Cyprus? Verdi convinced me that, yes, you can simply start with the sea storm. It places emphasis on the drama of whether Otello and his men have survived not only the weather but the naval battle with the Ottoman Empire. In doing so, one is lulled into believe this is a military drama, a history play in line with the sensibilities of the Henriad.
One major sacrifice of starting with the storm is that Desdemona (Julianna Di Giacomo) doesn’t enter the world of the play until half an hour into the action. A small consolation is that the aria she and Otello share is rather magnificent and nuanced. It functions as a storytelling scene, rehearsing their courtship in private rather than in a court room, in front of the Venetian duke and politicians. The public performance of courtship to a room of men fundamentally changes the interpersonal politics of the moment. In the libretto, his experience of and escape from slavery is made overt. Otello feels especially ennobled not by her pity, but by her interest in that history.
It also should have been no surprise to me that the two moments of singing necessary to the plot would be given new depth in this diegetic context, where song is not merely an interlude but a fundamental vehicle to the storytelling. It lends a new level to the songs Roderigo (Derek Taylor) and Iago (George Gagnidze) share that mark Cassio’s (Paolo Fanale) increasing drunkenness. With a full choir behind the orchestra, and a later youth ensemble brought in for support, the wall of voices evoked a much more massive military force than the intimacy of Shakespeare’s original scene suggests. Iago and Cassio’s exchange is also much more heated:
Iago. Only a coward flees from drink.
Cassio. Look into my soul.
Somehow this seemed far more intimate than the exchange shared between Desdemona and Otello only a moment before. The order of scenes is, of course crucial: Otello storms in, asking, “Am I among savages? … Anger puts our guardian angel to flight!” His barbarian quality is delocalized, attributed to a uncivilized quality rather than a specific region of Africa. (Even the maid Barbary is renamed Barbara.) Later, in his distress, Otello echoes Cassio: “Look at me. I reveal my soul. Search my broken heart.”
The imperatives provided by the translation were oddly refreshing, giving a clear interpretation of the events and making available a different set of possible motivations. Interestingly, Iago, a productive character to teach precisely for his inability to identify his own motivations for violence in the original, is provided a new impetus by Verdi. Deliciously expressive even from afar, Gagnidze renders a playful Iago who, when alone, revels in a kind of Faustian agnosticism:
I am evil because I am a man. This is my faith…Death is nothingness. Heaven is an old wife’s tale.
The other major intervention, at least apparent to me in this cursory listening, was how the infamous handkerchief is managed. It’s embroidered with flowers rather than strawberries according to the libretto, and we don’t actually ever see it. This wasn’t a full staging, but more of a prepared reading in order to feature the orchestra and choir. We are provided one story, not the competing two, and it is a simple origin from a sorceress. The magical origins are of less import; in lieu of these stripped-away aspects of the handkerchief are the dueling duets: Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano) and Iago banter in song over the dropped napkin while, on the opposite side of the stage, Desdemona panics over Otello’s burning brow: “Give me my handkerchief or feel my angry hand.” (No epilepsy here, too.) In so doing, the production asks us to compare how the two couples respond and react when in conflict. William Davenant used the same trick in the seventeenth century with his adaptation of Macbeth, putting the Macbeths and the Macduffs (if memory serves) in the same room. Their relationship has a relative comparison within the world of the play rather than in a vacuum, without an affective measuring stick.
The catharsis of this staging comes in act three, when this overlapping its taken to the next level in a trio sung between Iago, Desdemona, and Otello while he overhears her curated “confession.” I realized I was hearing the precursor to the apex trio of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera shared by Raoul and the Phantom as they vie over Christine. The following oscillation into Desdemona’s stirring solo of Ave Maria as she prepares for bed (wearing her white bridal gown rather than bed sheets, to be buried instead in its veils) is both a restorative from the wall of sound but also emphasizes the tragedy of this single woman among the louder voices of the military men. (Listen to Maria Callas seminal interpretation below.) I don’t know why I forget this perennial intersectionality at the core of this play; I am shocked in being reminded of it every time I see it anew or teach it to students for the first time. That resonance never seems to fail.
- The LA Philharmonic’s production of Otello played at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California, on July 15, 2018. As of this post, there were no plans for another performance.