Verdi’s “Otello” hits all the right notes

Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive
When: through Nov. 2
Phone: 1-312-332-2244

By M.L. Rantala
Classical Music Critic

Verdi’s “Otello” never fails to offer rich opportunities for artists who are both splendid singers and actors. Opening night at Lyric Opera of Chicago proved this to be true yet again, with a splendid cast and a splendid take on this timeless story based on Shakespeare’s own “Othello.”

Taking on the title role is South African tenor Johan Botha. His singing is firm and clear, complete with heft and ringing sound at the top. He is a little awkward moving about the stage, but his use of subtle facial expressions makes up for a lot. His anger is well portrayed, his love a little less so.

Ana Maria Martinez offers up a moving Desdemona. She and Botha set the stage for intrigue after their beautiful first act love duet. Martinez moves with ease and grace, and brings to the role an understated elegance. Act IV belongs to her, with two of Verdi’s most gripping moments for soprano. Her “Willow Song” is plaintive and suffused with sorrow. The following “Ave Maria” is warmly sung and holds you on the edge of your seat. Her lower register isn’t strong, but she makes up for it with her delicate high notes.

The opening night performance began with Falk Struckmann as Iago. But severe allergies forced him to withdraw from the performance after the first act. Understudy Todd Thomas took over and filled his portrayal with all the sneaky evil the role requires. His voice was strong and accurate and his acting had all the cringing details of a nasty schemer. His Act II aria, “I believe in a cruel god” was powerful and proved Lyric’s ability to cast even the understudies with tremendous talent.

Antonio Poli gives Cassio all the details which make the character so interesting and fun, along with a voice worth listening to.

Bertrand de Billy makes his Lyric Opera debut in the pit, commanding the orchestral forces with flair and musicality. His work surrounded the singers with the perfect blanket of sound.

The Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by chorus master Michael Black, is up to their usual high standard, and Anima, a children’s chorus prepared by Emily Ellsworth, adds superb texture to the proceedings.

The production, seen previously at Lyric, is marvelously designed by John Gunter. Sir Peter Hall directed the original production, and this time around the director is Ashley Dean (a Lyric debut) who controls the action with a deft hand.

Wooden balconies of multiple levels surround the stage so that action can take place at many levels. The fourth act bedroom scene is dominated by a gorgeous high curtain to surround the bed.

The four acts, with one intermission, rush by quickly and you will be pondering this tragic story for some time afterward.