Don't just breathe a sigh of relief, yell out a shout of joy.
On opening night, the acoustic environment of the new Winspear Opera House proved to be nothing short of spectacular. Hardwood floors, textured surfaces, a near-absence of flat horizontal surfaces and angles—to mention the most obvious aspects contributing to the acoustic excellence—create a room in which singers on stage and the orchestra in the pit resonate with an almost ideal combination of warmth and clarity. The visual beauty of the room, with what has to be one of the most amazing lighting fixtures in the world, as well as the sense of connection from the lobby to the neighboring cultural facilities, further contribute toward making this a room with the potential to house a great operatic tradition.
Leading singers will want to sing here, and audiences, able to hear and experience vocal brilliance up close, will want to be there to experience opera in a way that the best electronic audio or audio-visual system in the world will never be able to duplicate.
Verdi’s Otello is in many ways an ideal choice for opening a new opera house. In his better known mid-career hits—Aida, Il trovatore, La traviata, Rigoletto—Verdi produced miracles of characterization via melody and perfect vocal writing. In Otello, he added command of orchestration and harmony, and an ability to exploit and transcend traditional structures and operatic conventions. It resulted in a work that shows off the principal singers, the chorus and the orchestra, and presents the attentive audience member with a huge array of points to ponder, straight out of the Shakespeare play on which it is based.
Potentially, a singer in any of the three unusually rich, multi-faceted principal rolls—Otello, Iago and Desdemona—can steal a production. Ideally, the three can work together to produce a transcendent vocal and dramatic effect. And that, fortunately, was the case on opening night for the Dallas Opera's new season and its new home.
Soprano Alexandra Deshorties, who had stepped in at the last minute as Desdemona, provided a wonderful example of what a great house can do for a great singer. Thanks to the theater’s acoustical environment, Deshorties’ most subtle moment, the Ave Maria, was the finest segment of her performance, and, arguably, of the entire evening—not because of knock-you-over pyrotechnics, but because of the careful sculpting of every note and nuance.
As the unquestionably evil Iago, baritone Lado Ataneli, of course, gets Iago’s Credo, on the surface a blasphemous apologia, but more accurately a desperate musical and verbal statement of the dilemma of modern humanity. It's the one place where—forgive me, Shakespeare buffs—Verdi and librettist Boito could be said to actually have improved on the Bard. In his later duet with Clifton Forbis as Otello, Ataneli seemed to have a let-down of energy, but the excellence of the rest of his performance, combining an assertive dramatic presence with a thunderous voice, made this forgivable.
Tenor Forbis’ Otello, meanwhile, fell more into the category of a steady, solid presence rather than a series of vocal or dramatic high points. This is a meaty role demanding both intelligence and thoughtfulness, and Forbes brings both a wonderful, resonant voice and a well-thought approach.
It’s less easy to wholeheartedly endorse Anthony Baker’s designs, which moved the setting from the late Renaissance to the 19th century. Baker picked up on the military aspect of the setting, creating a visual wasteland dominated by cold, long lines, constantly repeated rectangles and 90-degree angles, along with brutally institutional furnishings (such as a large, boxy set of filing cabinets) such as might be found in an aging hospital or a military base. Costumes were largely colorless, as wel. In this relatively large opera house, the viewer constantly has to sort out characters visually—and the subtle schemes Baker used were simply too understated, and make the viewer do too much work. Director Tim Albery managed to keep the singers moving convincingly most of the time, though the flatness and boxiness of the sets hindered as much as they aided.
Indeed, while this cold visual setting provided a thought-provoking backdrop for Iago’s Credo as a statement of modern culture, and an interesting contrasting environment for Desdemona’s Ave Maria; the rest of the time, this viewer was searching for meaning in the sets (which is a good thing), but never quite arrived anywhere (which is not). And the old designer’s trick of creating a three-level setting didn’t add much to the meaning, either, and seemed to contribute, because of the distances it created, to some problems of ensemble for the chorus.
Along those lines, the flattering but demanding acoustic environment of this wonderful new theater clearly demands greater accuracy and precision from the chorus and orchestra; however, conductor Graeme Jenkins demonstrated, as usual, both insight and imagination in his reading of a score that many consider Verdi’s finest.
Like its inspiration, Shakespeare’s Othello, Verdi’s Otello invites worlds of thoughtful consideration in its exploration of good and evil as ambivalent human characteristics—with the added aspect, on opening night, of former First Lady Laura Bush in the audience. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person in the audience finding an ironic undertone in Mrs. George W. Bush’s presence for this drama of political and personal betrayal among the commanders of an invading army.
►Denton-based writer Wayne Lee Gay is currently in the final stages of completing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of North Texas. He has covered classical music and dance in the Dallas-Fort Worth region for nearly three decades, and is a past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. Among his many activities, he frequently provides program notes for the Dallas Opera Playbill as an unpaid contributor.