By Jeff Winslow
A storm at sea, drunken swordplay, a hero insecure to the point of tragic flaw, and a sadistic villain playing him like a cheap honky-tonk piano, leading to murder and suicide – Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Otello,” adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare, is certainly no picnic in the park.
But wait – that’s exactly what it is! Portland’s own international maestro Keith Clark narrates – spellbindingly, if history is any guide – and directs four star soloists, a live orchestra and chorus in Portland SummerFest’s 11th Annual Opera production at Washington Park Amphitheater, next to the Rose Gardens, at 6 pm on Friday, August 2, and at Concordia University Campus Green at 6 pm August 4. That’s two parks, not just one. And you are more than welcome to bring your picnic.
“Otello” is one of those rare works in which a composer who is a past master at capturing an audience’s attention and holding it, an utterly practical man of the theater, goes and does exactly what he pleases, bringing to bear a whole lifetime of experience and imagination. Far from being played out, Verdi in his 70’s – not unlike the five 75-year-old American composers featured at a recent Chamber Music Northwest concert – was at the absolute peak of his powers.
And what was his pleasure? All his creative life, Verdi was positioned against Richard Wagner, that noisy high-flown German, as the champion of Italian opera: direct, visceral and earthy. It was time to pick and choose what Verdi considered the best of Wagner’s harmonic and structural innovations, pare them down to their essence, and make them his own. The result is a double rarity, in that it is also a synthesis of the two great 19th century operatic traditions. Without losing any directness, Verdi infused “Otello” with a dazzling richness that to this day entrances the novice and connoisseur alike.
At the premiere of Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” many listeners were astounded by the prelude’s first bold steps towards what later became the grand modernist experiment, the dissolution of tonality. Verdi dispenses with a prelude, and the storm-tossed opening of “Otello” could hardly be called atonal, and yet, something very strange is going on. It settles down for awhile, as the storm passes and the victorious Otello, home from battling the Turks on behalf of Venice, is welcomed on shore by the Cypriot multitudes. But then a drinking bout develops among his aides, and the music plays along with disorienting sways and hiccups. The storm is gone from the sea, but it soon rises in addled brains. At the critical moment, the villain Iago arranges for Otello to see Cassio’s worst behavior, and Cassio is busted. Iago has a fiendish plan, and step one is complete.
Otello orders everyone off the streets, and he and his new bride Desdemona are the only ones left in the gathering dusk. Her hero is home from the wars, and they sing some of the loveliest music in the opera to each other. As the stars come out, they finally, passionately kiss, and Verdi underlines the moment with an exquisite harmonic transformation, unprecedented in his own work, but carefully distilled from Wagner’s excesses and perfectly applied. That “kiss” transformation will return to haunt us, as Iago destroys this blissful relationship step by step. (Warning for those who don’t know the plot: spoilers ahead.)
Act II opens with a short lively scene in which Iago advises Cassio to seek reinstatement in Otello’s good graces by appealing to Desdemona. As Cassio goes off oblivious to all but his career concerns, we are shocked to see and hear Iago reveal himself as one who believes only in a God of chance, who has allotted him an evil path which he has no choice but to follow, and who will not punish him in the afterlife because there isn’t any. Without any particularly outlandish chords, Verdi’s music nonetheless brilliantly portrays this schemer among schemers, this shiftiest of the shifty, slithering all over harmonic space in a desperate attempt to evade its own responsibilities. Right on cue, Otello walks in just as Cassio leaves his audience with Desdemona. Step two is complete.
But Iago has barely begun to drive in his acupuncture needles of jealousy, when everything stops, and the two watch from a distance, transfixed, as various crowds of local folk come to pay their respects to the new bride. Desdemona is radiant and gracious, the music settles down and sparkles, and Iago’s plans seem foiled as Otello is utterly smitten.
But Iago had it figured all along. As soon the locals leave, Desdemona comes over to plead with Otello on Cassio’s behalf. The music returns to the minor key and harmonic restlessness of Iago’s needles, but now it serves to illustrate Desdemona’s wheedling ways. To add insult to injury, at her most insistent entreaty, we hear a hint of the “kiss” transformation from their love duet. Otello’s suspicions return and redouble, and he reacts coldly. A scene develops between the three of them and Emilia, who is Desdemona’s maid as well as Iago’s wife. The quartet begins with a scrap of melody from Desdemona that ought to melt anyone’s heart, asking Otello’s pardon, but he is totally wrapped up in his own insecurities and hardly hears her. Believing him to be ill, she offers her handkerchief to cool his feverish head, but he throws it down, and when they aren’t looking, Iago rips it away from the suspicious Emilia, who had picked it up and who knows him too well. Step three is well on its way.
Otello orders everybody out, but Iago remains behind in the shadows and watches, as the music obsesses around another hint at the “kiss” transformation, accompanied by an unstable descending bass line which may refer to some of the drunken antics in Act I. He walks up to Otello and pretends to reassure him, knowing the poison is doing its work. Otello is so far gone that he actually demands that Iago furnish proof of Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio, threatening him bodily if he doesn’t. Iago feigns injured innocence, then helpfulness, and on the spot spins a story about hearing Cassio talking to Desdemona in a dream as if they were lovers.
The music for this narration is a minor miracle, somehow combining insinuation with airy lightness. At its climax, once again the “kiss” transformation is hinted at, more forcefully this time. Iago seals the deal by adding that he saw the handkerchief which happens to be out of sight in his pocket in Cassio’s hands.
In a final duet, Iago and Otello, each for their different reasons, swear vengeance on the innocent Desdemona. The “kiss” expands grossly to circle through foreign keys, and Act II roars to an end with a reference to that unstable descending bass line. Now, however, it is dangerously stone cold sober.
In Act III, Iago’s poison spreads almost effortlessly through the formerly happy couple’s relationship. Desdemona goes to Otello to try to patch things up, but in her innocence, everything she says turns out wrong. She even imagines that his anger at her inability to produce the handkerchief now in Iago’s hands is a feint to keep her from bringing up the matter of Cassio’s reinstatement. Little does she realize how little feint is in Otello – he is as incapable of it as Iago is incapable of anything but. He sends her away with a mock civility which is not reassuring.
Alone, he wallows in desperation and self-pity, but the music takes his side, and we are transported inescapably into his misery. Iago gleefully adds to it by single-handedly staging a conversation with Cassio which seems to be about Desdemona, but isn’t, and producing the handkerchief in such a way it seems Cassio had it all along, while arranging for Otello to watch from the shadows.
The fun and games are interrupted by the arrival of an official delegation from Venice, which announces that Otello is promoted to the Venetian court and his place in Cyprus is to be taken by Cassio. Iago is stung to fury by this unexpected development, but he hides it, biding his time. While the assembled court and dignitaries are distracted by the sight of the obviously distressed Desdemona, Iago quietly urges Otello to wreak vengeance that very night. Nearly drunk with rage and misery, he orders everyone to leave and publicly curses Desdemona when she tries to comfort him. Alone, he raves about the handkerchief and falls down in a faint. As a crowd of Cypriots outside hail victory and glory for Otello “the Lion of Venice,” Iago, who again has remained behind in the shadows, reappears to gloat, placing his boot heel on Otello’s forehead. The music sparingly underlines the chilling contrast in a hair-raising passage which morphs into a whirlwind finish. At the last second, a hideously twisted version of the “kiss” thunders out of the orchestra.
In the final act, the machine Iago has set in motion lumbers pretty much to its intended destination. And yet the music remains throughout the most touching, the most visceral, the most direct. As Desdemona prepares for bed with Emilia’s help, she recalls how her mother’s servant Barbara, who was abandoned by her lover, used to sing a plaintive Willow Song, and she winds up singing much of it herself. (It can’t be coincidence that the distinctive fall off the climax of the opening phrase is a melodic inversion of the “kiss.” Verdi was a sophisticated composer, but he always made details like this support the drama naturally.) Her “good night” to Emilia suddenly turns into a heartbreaking goodbye. Left alone, Desdemona prays the Ave Maria as the music returns one last time to hopeful innocence, and then she falls asleep.
Otello appears out of the darkness, and as an anguished solo line rises up from the depths of the orchestra, punctuated by nervous asides, he fusses and hesitates. The “kiss” music from their Act I duet returns, even lovelier, as he kisses Desdemona three times, but it’s diverted from its natural completion as she wakes up, perhaps tellingly wondering “who’s there?” At this point, however, nothing she says or doesn’t say can change Otello’s mind. He asks her if she has prayed, and repeats his accusations, this time finally naming Cassio. She flares up, demanding that Otello call him in and ask him point blank, but Otello believes he has been murdered in another of Iago’s schemes. He misinterprets her anguish at this news as further proof of her feelings for Cassio, and smothers her in a fit of rage.
At this moment there is pounding at the door; Emilia, Iago, and Cassio rush in with the (alarming for some) news that Cassio has foiled a plot on his life. When Emilia sees what Otello has done, she upbraids him fearlessly and spills the beans about the handkerchief. Iago feigns innocence until others rush in with news that Cassio’s would-be murderer (Roderigo, a failed suitor of Desdemona’s) revealed all of Iago’s plotting before he died. Otello turns on him in a fury and demands explanation; Iago only rushes from the scene. Otello finally, too late, understands how his life has been destroyed, and his own part in it. He pulls a hidden knife from his jacket and stabs himself.
All this drama is accompanied by equally dramatic music, rushing from key to key at a pace that would have done Wagner proud. As Otello dies, it slackens, and the anguished solo line returns in the orchestra as he tries to explain how he “kissed her before he killed her.” Then it transforms into the final reprise of the “kiss” music, complete in every detail this time, sinking down as he sinks down on Desdemona’s body, to one last, falling melodic interval, the one from the Willow Song. In Verdi’s music as in Shakespeare’s play, even this great love has turned to tragedy.
Some may fairly contend that it’s heartless to have a picnic while such wrenching action is playing out before you, even just musically. And indeed, the best course may well be to make sure you’re finished before the opera goes very far. But this is a concert version: there won’t be any explicit smotherings or stabbings. Instead, your senses will feast on Verdi’s exquisite (and exquisitely descriptive) music, and the beautiful voices of locally grown stars Richard Zeller as villain Iago, Angela Meade as helpless but not witless victim Desdemona, and Angela Niederloh as Iago’s wife Emilia, loyal but only to a point, as well as the internationally known Allan Glassman as tragic hero Otello and rising young tenor John Matthew Myers as Iago’s unwitting tool Cassio, with Ben Bell and Timothy Tommaso in supporting parts. You may well be riveted, holding that chicken drumstick halfway to your mouth for so long that you forget what you were going to do with it. That’s OK. You’ll walk away sated with a different kind of richness, and just maybe, feeling warier of schemers and full of renewed warmth and understanding toward your own loved ones.