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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Opera Review: The Big O!

Otello at the Met.
I don't think this will last. Johan Botha and Rene Fleming in Act I of Otello.
Photo © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
The title role of Otello is the most challenging role in Italian opera, possibly in the entire repertory. Sure, Wagner's Siegfried has to sing at full blast for nearly eight hours, but Otello has to act with his voice, hitting soft pianissimos, low baritone notes. A good Otello must be able to shift in a heartbeat from tender, quiet lyricism to lung-busting power. And since this is Verdi, you can't shout. You have to sing beautifully over a huge orchestra, even in the opening "Esultate!"

Johan Botha met all of the above requirements on Monday night, and then exceeded them. The South African tenor (last seen at the Met as Walther in Meistersinger) has a fine, strong voice with precise control. He can sing gorgeous lyric notes, long legato lines, and hits the big, stentorian climaxes without wavering off pitch or drowning in wobble. Like many of his fellow tenors, Botha is a good actor, (not a great one) but he can act with his voice, which more than makes up for any lack in physical ability. This was a towering portrayal, from the triumphant opening to total collapse after he murders his wife.

From the opening duet with Mr. Botha, Renée Fleming gave a tragic, sensitive performance as Desdemona, underpinned with a sense of impending doom. Her work in the third act (when she confronts her jealous husband) carried devastating emotional weight married perfectly to gorgeous singing. . The Act IV "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" featured floating pianissimo moments that left the Family Circle breathless. She fought like a wildcat in the murder scene, a physical performance that climaxed the evening with edge-of-the-seat suspense.

The libretto by Arrigio Boito (composer of Mefistofele) paints Iago as the snarling embodiment of evil. Those words aptly describe Carlo Guelfi's performance. Although he was not as silken-voiced as some interpreters of this role, his "Credo" aria was impressive. His scenes with Cassio (tenor Garrett Sorensen) were razor-sharp, particularly the trio in Act III. As Otello eavesdropped, these two singers made this grim scene ring with comic potential. Wendy White (as Emilia) was excellent in her small but crucial role.

Semyon Bychkov conducted a taut performance, letting the much-heralded Met Orchestra brass rip through the storm scene with gusto. He also summoned beautiful, subtle textures from the band. The English horn solo in Act IV (played by principal Pedro R. Diaz) was as eloquent as any aria. The only hitch: Elijah Moshinsky's production, which looks like a warmed-over version of the Met's staging of Don Carlo.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.