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Nowhere in Italian opera does the music serve the drama quite as it does in Verdi's "Otello." Through-composed like a Wagner epic, stripped of the set-piece arias and duets that end with sturdy cadences to cue the applause, "Otello" succeeds when four key principals succeed.
Sunday evening at the Garde Arts Center, the Connecticut Lyric Opera added another chapter to its increasingly storied eight-year history with an "Otello" that succeeds on all counts.
First, there were the three key principals in costume. In the title role, tenor John Tsotsoros was unflagging in his vocal power, with a focused, ringing projection in a role driven by suspicion and rage. Then there was soprano Jurate Svedaite, the CLO prima donna who has starred in most of its productions, projecting trepidation and ardor with her characteristically gorgeous sound as the doomed Desdemona. And in the juicy, villainous role of Iago, Garry Simpson not only filled the theater with his big, warm baritone, so well-suited to the Verdian tessitura, he avoided the broad slyness of the standard characterization to cloak his Iago in the self-confident suavity of sub-prime mortgage broker.
But it was the fourth principal, the one with 25 names, that carried the day. "Otello" is crafted as a seamless wave of music that excites, terrifies and breaks your heart, and those fine principals onstage rode the crest of a concert-quality performance by The Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, led by CLO Music Director Adrian Sylveen.
From the opening scene, with fog machines clouding the chorus and lightning flashes as the orchestra churned up a vivid musical storm, to the conclusion, a soft sigh of regret as Otello lies dead beside the wife he has just murdered, the orchestra's pacing, ensemble and tone-painting were all but flawless.
This score is dotted with motifs, a sign of Verdi's respect for Wagner, and the kiss motif, which appears in sentiment in Act 1 and ends in murder in Act 4 ("Before I killed you, my wife, I kissed you"), grew in its impact in each appearance.
It's hard to say why "Otello," generally regarded as Verdi's masterpiece, is so seldom performed. Perhaps it is because it is so unconventional in its pacing. Despite its success at its 1887 premier, it was not a trend-setter, as the opera stage was quickly reclaimed by the predictable aria-and-applause settings of Puccini. But the CLO production once again proved the unique theatricality of Verdi's final dramatic opera.
The one-set staging, lighting and direction by Sylveen and David Jaffe were just right, never self-conscious, always in support of the score and script. And CLO worked out the bugs in its supertitles, crucial in this most text-driven of Verdi operas.
The text, of course, is the finest Verdi had. The librettist, Arrigo Boito, distilled the original Shakespeare down to its essence in this tale of the Moorish hero general and governor of Cyprus who is psychologically destroyed by his embittered lieutenant Iago, driven by deceit into jealousy, blind rage and murder. It was Boito, not Shakespeare, who devised the best-known element of the opera, "Iago's Credo," in which the villain cuts to the chase as he declaims his motivation: "I believe in a cruel God, who created me in his image ? I am evil because I am a man."
Simpson delivered this arioso-as-soliloquy with a chilling coolness, and in the final curtain calls, the crowd booed him as he came onstage, a tribute to his vivid performance that drew a comic double-take from the baritone.
A well-paced, well-performed "Otello" almost goes of itself. From the end of Act 3, when Otello has collapsed in nervous exhaustion as a triumphant Iago places his foot on the prostrate ruler and exults "Ecco il Leone! (Behold the lion!)," through the inevitable doom of the final act, the momentum and pathos held the audience in thrall.
As Otello, Tsotsoros was vocally commanding, never flagging as his madness turned up the dramatic volume. As Desdemona, Svedaite was vulnerable and heart-breaking, on her knees in Act 3 as she realizes the scope of Otello's rage and jealousy - "Mi guarda!" - and especially in the final act, masked in calm despair as she prays, a performance that drew memories of her "Violetta" two seasons ago.
"Otello" was the Lyric Opera's finest moment - the lighting, staging and details all in balance, the voices perfectly cast and thrilling, the orchestra carrying the drama with a pacing that defied the complexity of the score ? all of these elements did justice to a masterpiece.