Wednesday, November 18, 2009

San Francisco Opera's "Otello"

November 13, 2009

In constructing Shakespeare's beautiful three-legged table, San Francisco Opera has provided two legs of world-champion talent. In the title role, South African tenor Johan Botha opens with the Moorish captain's ringing cry of "Esultate!" and continues in just that vein, using his mighty instrument to hurl Zeus-like bolts from the stage. Then, in the first-act love duet, he demonstrates that the lightning bolts can be tamed, producing impressively sweet passages of lyric singing. His second-act lament, "Ora e per sempre addio," is masterful.

For the second leg, Iago, Italian baritone Marco Vratogna uses subtler, craftier means. In fact, he doesn't stand out much at all in the opening act, but this makes the second-act soliloquy, "Credo in un Dio crudel, a showstopper of villainous singing. An inspiration of librettist Arrigo Boito, the Credo succeeds in spelling out Iago's motives much more directly than Shakespeare could do, and ends with a rumbling sotto voce that sends chills through the audience.

And now, for that third leg. It's not that soprano Zvetelina Vassileva doesn't possess a beautiful instrument, it's that she fails to craft her lines in a way that lines up with her character's emotions. This was most painfully apparent in the Willow Song, which fails to deliver its most necessary subtext: this is a woman who expects that her husband is going to come very soon and kill her. Dealing with a character who is, from the outset, threatening to disappear into victimhood (much like Hamlet's Ophelia), this is an opportunity that cannot be passed up. Not helping matters are the physical interactions between Vassileva and Botha. Botha is a large man whose onstage movements are problematic to begin with, but the awkward public assault of Act 3 and the comically pathetic suffocation (five seconds with a soft pillow) are inexcusable.

Nicola Luisotti was well at home with Verdi's awe-inspiring score, especially in drawing a fulsome, downright scary sound from his strings in the slashing passages of the opening thunderstorm. Peter Hall's set (from the Chicago Lyric production), makes an intriguing play on the Globe Theater. It's a pleasure to watch the machinations of the elder Verdi, who took 16 years off before composing this work, especially in his divine handling of Shakespearean dramatics. This is especialoly evident in the Act 3 Concertato, in which the entire cast expresses its amazement at Otello's behavior as Iago races around advancing several subplots in the background. The sheer efficiency is amazing.

Through Dec. 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

Photo by Terrence McCarthy

No comments: