Wednesday, July 9, 2014


That's a snap of the first curtain call at Friday nights Opera Australia's Otello premier.

The Otello is the big kiwi Simon O'Neill who you probably know has been singing his way around the world with Parsifal and Siegmund and things heldentenorish. The Desdemona is the rush-to-the-rescue soprano from Armenia, the very lovely and very glowing Lianna Haroutounian who has already bailed out Covent Garden, twice:  Don Carlos and Verpers.

It was a rapturous end to a much anticipated night (what with the scandal not to mention Mr O'Neill's stage Otello debut, having sung it in concert with the LSO) with a first night crowd all aglitter and agog, and in furs. A tall elegant woman in a long silver dress with silver braiding in her jet black hair covered her shoulders in a pale plush stole and another had an ancient full length rabbit brown number. Both also sported males in black tie. Do women still wear furs? Apparently. As Joan Rivers said: "Come to me with a paper belt and I'll talk to you".

Oh, I have an Otello story. Mum and Dad were back from London and talking about the wonderful Otello they'd seen and the glorious Desdemona and how the bastard strangled her, and that after she'd said her prayers! That was te Kanawa, I boasted. Te Kanawa. She's huge (long time ago talk).  She's New Zealand - te Kanawa - part Maori. Then it wasn't her Mum said. This one was blond.

Which raises an important issue. This is no ordinary marriage breakup (not that I mean most marriages are ordinary). But I had an aunt who used to say that getting and staying married meant you might just as well go down to the bus stop at Double Bay (think: same socio-economic group), find someone you liked the look off (think: stir the loins a bit) and from then on it's all hard work. She had a point.

But there are some marriages that transcend the usual (for want of a better expression) and raise eyebrows. Gay marriage, often, still. Inter-racial, sometimes, still.  Inter-religious, sometimes, still. The marriage in question in Otello, and the marriage that is destroyed purely because of its specialness, is exactly that - unusually special. He is a black Moor, she is a fair skinned Holy Mary saying Christian. each further isolated from their group by the very marriage itself and all the more interdependent therefore. There can never be one without the other now, no going back after 'crossing over'.

So, for me, a production which doesn't play this card, not necessarily black face and blond wig, but delineate the intensity and specialness of this union misses out on highlighting just how it gets derailed and the enormous tragedy, and impact, of the end.

We've got the 10 year old Kupfer production, the one Simone Young was involved with, I think, and frankly, I've never really liked it. It doesn't deliver what matters most.

It's the set that doesn't work for me. In trying too hard to symbolise the whole nightmare, it ends up cluttering the stage and looking choked, wasting two thirds of it, ensuring half the singing is half way up or worse with heads in the flys singing to ropes. And it's noisy. Set in the 30's or 40's, the women clunk up and down in clunky shoes, and the men are brown shirts, of ranked medalling, in boots.

And all this upping and downing happens on something no more solid than a choir stand. But good for hiding under and eavesdropping and strangling your wife. What's more, it's a few degrees of horizontal. And it's boobie trapped. It's bombed out and the gapes are roped off with old movie palace ropes. It's all snakes and ladders. Yes, got it. More importantly, time spent negotiating the metaphor was time lost in developing dramatic credibility. Despite one of the most beautiful love duets ever, it takes more than silhouetting against Venus to set up this heartbreak.

                                           (Lianna Haroutuonian taking a curtain in the green nightie)

Anyway, all bitching aside, the set is fine in itself I suppose. It just needs to be in a theatre with a much much bigger stage, a pit with a big orchestra, and air to breath. What you could make out of this fabulous score sounded good, but pinched. It's these mighty works where you cry out for lucid sound, and perhaps less electronic thunder? 

Simon O'Neill is big. Maybe faced with having to get physical (it's like a step class), he did just that. And threw(sic) himself into it. The voice is large, and of great breath and phrasing, and penetrating. I don't care so much for the nasal quality, purely personal taste. His thundering entrance was something much lost in the melee and the upper stairs. Neil Armfield spoke of the letting the singers get it out. Downstage works wonders.

Lianna Haroutounian had better placement on the stage and perfect placement in the voice. Careful but not cautious, she poured it out with a young clean rounded tone with enough warmth to reach into your heart with ever increasing despair. While the voice may not be fully unfurled at the moment, she gave a hint of the future with an Emilia, addio that had her whole night compressed into it and released with an urgency in the most thrilling combination of resolution and fear. I felt lucky to be hearing her now, with a little pitter patter in the heart at last.

After the Ave Marie, the first natural pause really, the crowd erupted into sustained clapping and cheering, a thank you for coming at such short notice, for not being the other one, and most of all for nailing it, beautifully. When Otello appeared through the rear high shutters to make his entrance just as the applause started to fade, the volume and cheering picked up again in a not-finished-with-her-yet statement, and he had to stand and wait. Good moment.

Iago's primal slime doesn't come all that easily. There's the need to get into very dark territory, the darkest corners of the ego. Claudio Sgura didn't get there for me. He has a good and at times lovely baritone, too lovely perhaps, and up against this big Otello, he has to come out the winner. Most others liked him, but I kept thinking of Jonathan Summers, and more lately, Warwick Fife whose surprise Alberich is last years Ring was the talk of the town.

Jacqui Dark comfortably reprised her fine Emilia. All the guys were fine. The chorus was good, blown about by storms and scuffles, but lessened by much of the time being stuck up high and back.

I like this one too:


David said...

Yep, the set looks hideous. Quite a lot of Kupfer's designs have dated (awful-looking Parsifal, Act Two apart, I saw recently).

Big Si was hugely disappointing for Sir Col and the LSO - not just the too-bright, nasal tone but also the lack of engagement. On stage rather than the concert platform I guess he has to.

But that last pic - you weren't snapping DURING the performance, were you?

wanderer said...

Not during, never. Never ever. They're all curtain calls. And even then felt a bit naughty.

David said...

Lazy reading of my part. I should have looked at the top bit more carefully. Absolutely no problem with curtain call pics, though there's a blogger who puts up the professional production shots and then follows them with reams of her own crappy curtain call pics.

Anonymous said...

Saw this last night though with Natalie Aroyan as Desdemona. I pretty much agree with you on the elements we saw in common, and also re Summers even though his badness always tends to the lugubrious. Summers does not have an especially beautiful voice and Sgura probably sings better on that count, but the opera needs a more conspicuously nasty Iago than Sgura gave us. Generally I felt all three principals miscast (in Aroyan's case that is more just where she is in her development) and misdirected and the set didn't help either, especially in the love and death scenes. Sigh for the pit.

wanderer said...

Glad you went. I'm very interested in the McVicar (very well cast) Donny G but resisting the drain on the purse so far. So far.

As for the pit, Sydney Alumni Mag (you get it?) has a pretty vacuous piece on Ms Herron. Visionary doesn't come to mind.

Off to Carriageworks tonight.

Anonymous said...

And speaking of casting, why not ?

wanderer said...

I know, I know. I think he's perfect for it now or it for him, whatever, and seriously looked at trying to get there; alas.