Opera: Verdi’s Otello

as below:

The end.

Opera is one of the best things ever. And it’s something we don’t get nearly enough of here in Taipei. Unfortunately, we’ll likely be getting even less of it now that the opera house, built in 1985-86, is getting its first big renovation. The beautiful building will be closed until February 2017, and if it’s anything like the renovation of the concert hall was, it’ll open post-renovation to look exactly like it did before, except newer, fresher, shinier, with bouncier, firmer seats and  spring in its step. And what a way to end the season.

In any case, this afternoon’s ‘opera-in-concert’ was supposed to be yesterday evening, but due to Super Typhoon Nepartak, the performance was moved to this afternoon, even though here in the north we got little more than a few measly gusts of wind and some raindrops. This performance also marks the bittersweet end of a truly wonderful season, a memorable year of concerts, a season of which I shall have fond memories and for which I have many feels.

It was announced last year that the annual opera would be staged in the concert hall due to the renovation, and we were all assured that ‘we’ll make do’, which was a promise that, while encouraging, still sounded… conciliatory? Sub-par? I promise you it was not.

The cast for the evening had some familiar names. I’ve seen some of the above in performances of other works, and our fantastic NSO always delights. The announcement of Verdi’s Otello, however, was something else I heard more with ignorance than excitement. Who doesn’t know Verdi’s name, at least? But I will say I was entirely unfamiliar with the work itself. Wozzeck or Wagner would have quickened the pulse more than Verdi, but… wrong again.

Today’s performance was spectacular. It felt a bit like seeing old friends, getting everyone together for a special gathering of some kind in an old familiar place. I’ve walked through those concert hall doors by now a hundred times or more, and to see it this way was especially exciting:

So the orchestra isn’t in a pit, and the acoustics in the concert hall are different, but kudos to the design folks and stage direction, because they made incredible use of all the space available, involving members of the chorus as part of the action, walking through and across the hall in the audience, and more. Needless to say, the performance was excellent, but the design and adaptation of the concert hall for a dramatic setting was what made the first big impression.

I’d been to a concert staging of an opera earlier in the year, and there were some acoustical issues. Not today. I’m not sure if it was the stage layout or just the caliber of performers, but everyone was crystal clear. The surtitles were thankfully in both English and Chinese, but it would have been nice to see the Italian as well. Plenty easy to follow along.

All in all, the stage design and direction, use of the space to create intimacy or distance or drama or setting, was spectacular. This is what makes an opera come to life. Without a compelling, dramatic visual aspect, theatre easily takes on the feel of a high-school performance, no matter how well-played the music is. Today’s staging, however, was nothing short of stunning, thanks to Mary Birnbaum and the entire creative team. This was, I imagine, a less than ideal situation, with far less real estate to work with than in an opera house, but I found myself quite pleased that everything was exactly the way it was. If not done right, an otherwise handsome staging might border on cheesy, but everything from the performers to the (matching) goblets to the color schemes and backdrops were nothing short of pristinely executed. Birnbaum must come back when the opera house is back in business. To think what she could do in that beautiful setting.

It was a very encompassing performance, not just singers standing on a stage. The chorus shared in the drinking that was encouraged in the the first act, passing around their identical goblets/mugs and exponentially raising the general level of frivolity. The ‘backdrop’ that hung above stage looked like a cold, hard piece of metal, but on it were later projected scenes and emotional cues. The beginning of the first act showed a stormy, turbulent, sea, crashing waves, as Otello returned (from the rear of the concert hall) victorious to meet his woman. In the second half, it became like an otherworldly mirror, projecting a reverse image, filmed from above, of the stage and the action, like an ethereal, ominous version of the ceiling mirror that’s used in a cooking class to give you a first-person perspective of what’s going on. Brilliant.

Costumes were modern (solid-colored shirts, ties, slacks, like really well-dressed business attire, and beautiful flowing dresses, of course, for  Desdemona and Emilia, who also shined brightly in the final act). When Iago or Otello  shooed the other characters away, the chorus reacted in kind, promptly making their way out of the scene. The interaction on stage was fantastic, and the economical use of space was very effective. I thought multiple times of the phrase ‘willful suspension of disbelief.’ Modern, sharp, clean, passionate, but not the slightest amount of cheese or gauche.

Verdi and Shakespeare…. how could one go wrong? Italians and drama, y’know. But the work itself (a dramatic, tragic, ironic, passionate and very true-to-life story) aside, our performers for the evening were fantastic. I’ve written about the locals before. The only local performers I hadn’t seen were our Montano and Herald; all the others were, as in the past, superb.

Our visitors for the afternoon (I keep wanting to say evening) were the special treats. In the four-act play, it seemed more that the real stars of the work took a back seat for the first two acts, leaving the phenomenal Boris Statsenko to steal the show as the evil, conniving but still charismatic and somehow heroic (if there’s an opposite, evil word that means the same thing) Iago. What a showstopper he was, really unbelievable. I had chills for most of the second act, and his performance left Desdemona (Cecilia Costea) and Otello (Michael Lehotsky) a bit out of the limelight for the first half.

But they got their thunder as the third act began, after the intermission. I was ready to sit through the entire rest of the opera (actually not really terribly long anyway), but upon returning, we see that (spoiler alert) Iago‘s evil plan has been laid exquisitely well, and we are now just waiting to see how the rest of the pieces fall into place. This is where Lehotsky came to life as Otello. I got the impression he was an authoritative yet (at least relative to Iago) mild-mannered, more laid-back average nice guy, and Costea’s  Desdemona seemed not the delicate flower of a woman one might expect from a Shakespearean drama. She has truly spectacular pipes, a seemingly-unending source of power and volume and richness, but I thought at least for the first half could have been a bit more dainty. That is, anyway, the impression/expectation I had of the role, but I’m the opposite of an expert. She is undeniably a stunning talent.

But her shining moment came in the final act. It was as if she and Otello had been working a long, slow crescendo to steal the stage from Iago, who is obviously run off in the fourth act. Her voice quality could change at a moment’s notice, from a full-bodied golden tone to a pained, deep, almost unnatural sound, like her soul was being wrung out, not an inappropriate quality to have in such a passionate role. Her ‘salce, salce’ was spellbinding. I’ve seen a masterclass about this aria, but to see it in context is really amazing.

No more spoiler alerts, but the Shakespearean drama played out as one might expect that it would, and when the final note rang out and 呂紹嘉 cut off the final sounds with a close of his left hand, I found myself at least as emotional about the end of a memorable,  personal, incredibly rewarding and enjoyable season with the NSO. It might be silly to say so, but if I can keep from getting too emotional about it, I might write a season-in-review article and compile all of the NSO’s concert reviews into a series for posterity. I get all choked up when it comes to lasts and final this or final that and goodbyes and endings, but it’s been a very memorable year, NSO, and having gotten to know the music and the people and the building and the ins and outs of it all, everything makes for a very powerful experience. As music is a reflection of life, a representation of the artist’s (or artists’) thoughts and feelings on his life, so music is there as the soundtrack of ours, playing itself along with the timeline of an entire year’s worth of experiences, both good and bad, making memories that stay with a person for a very long time. I had a (very) long list of concerts on my wall, titles and dates of the 2015/16 NSO schedule, and my seat that I sat in, my stack of tickets, and one by one they got marked off and used up, and here we are, after a phenomenal, memorable year of music-making, listening, articles, as it rains outside, marking the end of a truly incredible year. The entire season, as is very much the case with a single concert, is something that will never again be repeated, that has come, and left its mark, and gone, to live forever in memories and articles and future reminiscent discussions about favorite concert experiences and ‘remember when’ conversations…

And all this, just as one ends and another begins, there is an event I’m looking forward to tomorrow evening, one which ushers in the new NSO season on the very weekend that the previous, the most memorable so far, has come to a bittersweet close.

Thanks for the memories, NSO, and everyone who graced us with their presence on stage. I’m looking forward to another year of great things.

Bravi e grazie mille


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