When one mentions the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, Otello is probably not the first one that comes to mind. But it should be. This masterpiece, which came late in the composer's career, is just that—a pinnacle work that rises above his earlier notable titles in its fusing of music and theater by way of musical continuity, complex and addictively descriptive orchestration, and perfectly paced poetic drama. Knoxville Opera's superlative Rossini Festival production of Otello last weekend also fused the brilliance and solidity of seasoned operatic performers with a solid cast of younger singers possessing major, and truly exciting, vocal talents.
The title role of Otello is one of the most challenging in the tenor repertoire, requiring lyricism, vocal power, and dramatic intensity and ability. Add extensive experience in the role to that list and you have Michael Austin, who was singing his 47th career production as the Moorish general. That amount of experience spoke for itself in Austin's seemingly innate familiarity with the shaped and varying terrain of Verdi's lyricism, in both moments of strength—such as the opening jubilant and victorious "Esultate!"—and in vulnerability, a beautifully sung Act IV "Nium mi tema." Familiarity can be a two-edged sword, though; stage director Thomas Holliday's blocking seemed uncomfortable and unmotivated for Austin's Otello in places, specifically in moments of physical confrontation.
Baritone Scott Bearden, another veteran of the opera stage, turned in a magnificent performance as the evil Iago. His dramatic manipulation of the romantically vulnerable Otello was skillfully constructed and was complemented perfectly by a tailored vocal interpretation of villainy with a purpose. His Act II "Credo in un Dio crudel" was a dramatic highlight of the evening, one in which he sums up the nature of his nihilistic evil: "I believe in a cruel God who has created me in his image" and "Death is nothingness… heaven is an old wives tale."
Making her U.S. operatic debut was the Greek soprano Kassandra Dimopoulou as the vulnerable and loving Desdemona. Dimopoulou's beauty was matched by a voice that is truly luscious in its mid-range and eye-opening with its power and focus. It came as no surprise, then, that Dimopoulou candidly admitted that her voice falls more in the mezzo soprano category, something clearly evidenced by other roles she is currently developing and roles for which she will be sought, such as Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier) and Dorabella (Cosi fan tutte). No matter—Verdi's Desdemona falls beautifully in Dimopoulou's "sweet" range. Her notable Act IV arias—the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria"—wove a mesmerizing vocal spell.
Music director Brian Salesky has made a habit in past seasons of finding fabulous young singers at the beginning of what will be amazing careers. Now we can add to that list the tenor Andrew Stenson, who sang the role of the young lieutenant Cassio. Stenson has both power and a lyrical clarity in his upper range, as well as an abundance of stage energy, natural enthusiasm, and affable charm—qualities that are getting him noticed in big opera houses around the country.
The remainder of the secondary cast was equally strong. Bass Kevin Thompson, returning from last fall's La Traviata, sang a majestic Lodovico. Dixie Roberts was a sympathetic—and vocally strong—Emilia, Desdemona's companion and Iago's suffering wife. Harry House sang Roderigo; Jesse Stock sang Montano.
Director Holliday brought a fairly traditional staging to Otello, but one that had its priorities in the right place. Action for the principals was neither over-complicated nor ostentatious, with the exception mentioned earlier. Crowd action was nicely motivated, never gratuitous. There was also nothing gratuitous in Holliday's use of the season's set of platforms and steps, either, those being beautifully supplemented with minimally suggestive hanging pieces. Ironically, the one moment of vibrant and stylistic color in evening—Desdemona's massive and artfully swagged bed drapery—was quite the counterpoint to the Act IV murder and suicide.
When one hears departing audience members on the street humming Verdi's addictive orchestral passages, the credit goes to the unsung heroes of the evening—pun intended—the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in the pit under Maestro Salesky.
Knoxville Opera will be taking a different journey next season—two operas sung in English, and actual Rossini returns to the Rossini Festival with La Cenerentola ("Cinderella").