Menacing Otello takes total control

21 July 2023

Opening in a blaze of sound and fury, Otello unleashes an emotional rollercoaster. Will Yeoman urges you to jump on board. 

Otello, West Australian Opera 
His Majesty’s Theatre, 20 July 2023 

The exterior of His Majesty’s Theatre is lit blood-red for the opening night of Otello. I race across the rain-slicked street, grab my ticket and strap myself in for what’s going to be a wild ride. 

Librettist Arrigo Boito brutally slashes Shakespeare’s classic tale of jealousy, treachery and murder. Verdi’s operatic masterpiece is therefore a tight, almost two-hander in which proceedings move swiftly while the spotlight remains on Otello and his nemesis, Iago. 

Harry Kupfer’s 2003 production for Opera Australia, revived here by WA Opera, shifts the action to Nazi Germany. Fascist overtones are everywhere, with Hans Schavernoch’s set dominated by an Art Deco statue of Atlas supporting a globe on his shoulders.  

But the massive staircase is unstable, the shutters blow freely in the wind, the furnishings are worn. Decadent in the true sense of the word. Even Yan Tax’s costumes, when they’re not crisp uniforms, exhibit an anachronistically boho-chic accent. 

Naomi Johns plays Desdemona in ‘Otello’ Photo: Dylan Alcock/West Beach Studio

Revival director Miranda Summers and musical director Chris van Tuinen, along with lighting designer Toby Sewell, ensure Hitchcockian overtones abound, too. A sense of doom, of menace, pervades this production as words, music and movement rush inexorably towards a shattering denouement.  

The result is a decidedly unoperatic distillation of the gamut of human emotions. 

Which would not have been nearly as successful were it not for superlative performances by Paul O’Neill (Otello), Iago (Jose Carbó) and Desdemona (Naomi Johns). Superlatively supported, of course, by Ashlyn Tymms (Emilia), Nicholas Jones (Cassio), Matthew Reardon (Roderigo), Mark Alderson (Lodovico), Brett Peart (Montano) and Lachlan Higgins (a herald). 

The West Australian Opera Chorus and Symphony Orchestra raise the curtain with sound and fury as a tempest threatens to destroy the Venetian fleet Otello ultimately steers to safety after victory against the Turks.  

The high slapstick of Cassio’s drunkenness, Iago’s explicit hatred of Otello for being passed over for promotion, a violent brawl between Cassio and Iago’s ally Roderigo, the exquisite love duet between Otello and Desdemona: Act One has everything and cast and musicians seize every opportunity to pit chaos against coherence. 

Cassio (Nicholas Jones) and Iago (Jose Carbó) in ‘Otello’. Photo: Dylan Alcock/West Beach Studio

Act Two is almost all Carbó’s, and Iago’s bitter, hate-filled monologue Credo in Dio crudel is a showstopper, Carbó wielding his gleaming-edged baritone like a sword of vengeance. The unctuous arietta where Iago pours lies like hemlock into the ear of Otello about Cassio’s supposed passion for Desdemona is just as effective. 

Desdemona is justifiably incredulous in the quartet Dammi la dolce e lieta parola; Otello unjustifiably credulous in his duet with Iago, Si, pel ciel marmorea guiro. Extraordinary singing all round, yes; but even better, razor-sharp characterisation. 

To say too much more is to say too much, because you really need to see this production for yourself. I will, however, reemphasise WASO’s playing under van Tuinen, especially in the tuttis and some of the more complex string passages.  

And leave you with a tantalising vision of Desdemona’s Act Four Willow Song and Ave Maria: Johns centre stage, her soprano caressing the tale of woe and prayer alike; O’Neill appearing at the shutters like the angel of death, then sneaking slowly down the staircase towards his prey. 

We all know this isn’t going to end well. 

Otello is at His Majesty’s Theatre until 29 July 2023 

Pictured top: Paul O’Neill and Jose Carbó are superlative as Otello and Iago. Photo: Dylan Alcock/West Beach Studio

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Author —
Will Yeoman

Will Yeoman was literary editor at The West Australian before moving into arts and travel, and is now CEO of Writing WA, as well as artistic director of York Festival. Previously he was artistic director of New Norcia Writers Festival and Perth Festival Writers Week. He is a regular music critic for Limelight and Gramophone magazines and a keen classical guitarist who enjoys collaborating on spoken word and music performances. He favours the flying fox.

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