It seems that not quite everyone was at the Rolling Stones concert on Saturday night. Some patrons made it to the opening performance of the State Opera’s production of Otello.
Opening with a literal bang that startled the audience, the stage was set as a modern aircraft carrier boasting a cast of approximately thirty, all in air force attire. Act I commences with Otello’s triumphant return from battle and celebrations for his wedding to Desdemona. Iago, Otello’s apparently loyal friend, is resentful that he has appointed Cassio as Captain, and devises an evil plot to defame both Otello and Cassio, regardless of the cost.
Otello, composed by Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Arrigo Boito, was first performed in Milan on 5 February 1887 and is considered one of the greatest opera’s of all time. It mimics, but does not strictly follow the Shakespearean tragedy on which it’s based.
Director Simon Phillips has stated that his intention in setting Verdi’s 127 year old opera in the modern military was to create a world in which “the irrational extremity of both Otello’s jealousy and Iago’s hell-bent destruction…could thrive and fester; a pressure-cooker in which Iago’s nihilism, Otellos’s emotional instability and Desdemona’s isolation would make a strange and disturbing sense.”
The result of this decision was that the lavish sets and costumes traditionally associated with Opera, were missing. As one audience member was heard to utter at interval, one of the reasons for attending the opera is for the visual spectacle and there was little, if any of that in this production.
There were several other unfortunate results from setting the opera in modern times within the military. Firstly, despite the intention to create an opera that “surpasses its source”, the result was somewhat comical. The storyline and lyrics, while probably acceptable if set in the 17th century as intended, did not work in this setting. If it had been presented in any art form other than opera, it would be written off as farcical. It took incredibly little to turn Otello against Desdemona and justify his public humiliations of her, and indeed pre-mediated murder on the basis he believed she’d been unfaithful. Likewise, Desdemona sits in her boudoir (aircraft carrier cramped quarters) in her wedding negligee waiting for the husband she knows is coming to kill her.
This type of story just doesn’t work in a modern setting and another of the unfortunate connotations is that of it being set in the military at all. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello is a Moor and it is partly the racial discrimination to which he’s always been subject that fuels his insecurity and ability to believe his love would betray him. In this production, Otello is an Italian captain who just appears a misogynist pig and the whole (mis) interpretation of Shakespeare is frankly angering.
Ignoring the appalling story and lack of pretty costumes, the music was beautiful. Principals Douglas McNicol (Iago), Bradley Daley (Otello) and Miriam Gordon-Stewart (Desdemona) are world-class performers. When the entire ensemble was onstage, the combination of operatic excellence accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra was breathtaking. If this is the only reason you’d go to a live performance of the opera rather than listening to a CD, it’s well worth the ticket price. If you’re a frequenter of the opera, you’ll be accustomed to the drama and unreality and will be expert at setting that aside for the wonderful voices of truly talented singers and their live musical counterparts.
If, however, you’re a newbie to the opera scene, it may be advisable to wait for a production with a better story and something pretty to look at. Otherwise you could just close your eyes, ignore the autocue and drab costumes, and focus on the music.
The performance was far from sold out (possibly because of the Rolling Stones) and it will be interesting to see if future performances fare any better. In addition to issues already noted, the theatre itself was over air-conditioned to the point of extreme discomfort. At the end of Saturday’s show, the audience did not appear to be floating on rapturous opera clouds. Perhaps the lesson is, unless it’s a modern story, don’t try to modernise it. The audience expects a spectacle for the eyes as well as the ears, and be careful of unintended cultural aspersions.
Reviewed by: Samantha Bond
Venue: Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Season: 25, 28, 30 October & 1 November 2014
Duration: 2.5 hours
Bookings: Book through BASS online or phone 131 246