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KOA "OTELLO": A Performance for A Memory Book
By Henry C. Mayer
Why should one go to an opera? And, maybe, why "Otello" -- a heavy subject and the curtain-raiser for Kentucky Opera Association's 1990-91 season?
To find out, Louisville Music News not only talked with Maurice Stern
, who completed his twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh performance of one of opera's most demanding roles, and Sir Alexander Gibson
, the conductor, but also reviewed Shakespeare's play of that name and watched a performance avidly.
In particular, our questions were for those who maybe have never seen and heard an opera -- including those who may feel it is not for them.
First a few words from Stern. Talking leisurely over tea, he observed, "It happens every day -- almost -- anywhere, everywhere. It is a story about people competing with each other for advancement, sometimes the same woman, and what feelings can surface in such a competition."
Sir Alexander, whose forte is rendering works by Otello's creator, Giuseppe Verdi, (Joe Green) observed, "Simply come and listen to the beautiful music -- the beautiful love duet between Otello and Desdemona in Act I -- the conflicting emotions of each man, Otello, Iago and Cassio in Act III's trio -- one of the more difficult moments in opera to pull off right."
And back to Stern, "What does 'Otello' say to us -- or what can it say? It is a story about human frailty, an eye opener about our humanity. If you like, you can say that it is its moral."
Verdi and his writer (librettist) Boito skillfully compressed Shakespeare's five acts into four tense, quick-moving, gripping acts. Some would say they improved on Shakespeare. The story begins with a marvelous storm scene while the anxious and prayerful citizens of Cyprus await their leader Otello's return from a battle with the Turks. The realism of this scene was a triumph for Ken Cazan
, the director, Robert O'Hearn
, the set designer, and Tom Hennes
who did the lighting. Each of them was contributing to a KOA production for the first time and it will be a joy to see more of their efforts in future productions.
The story is briefly told. As Otello is returning home, newly married and triumphant, we learn his promotion of Cassio angers the latter's rival, Iago, and his marriage to Desdemona, a considerably younger person than himself, has aroused the jealousy of Rodrigo. Seeing in Rodrigo's frustrated passion an opportunity to ruin both Cassio and Otello, Iago begins to plot with a vengeance. His talent for intrigue and dissembling in the words of Maurice Stern to me are "almost pure evil," and when one listens to his lines, including his statement of belief in Act II, one can arrive at a deeper appreciation for the darker aspects of being human. His plot succeeds; Cassio is disgraced, Otello succumbs to a jealousy which so takes hold of him that he kills Desdemona in Act IV, believing Iago's wily insinuations that she has been unfaithful. Upon hearing from her lady-in-waiting and Iago's wife, Emilia, that Iago has deceived him, he suicides. Officers of his troops are seeking Iago as the curtain falls.
The demands on all are considerable. Stern explained that the conductor must have everything under his control, not only knowing the score and the singers with their strengths and limitations, but also loving their potential so as to bring out the best in them. As far as this observer could tell, Sir Alex did just that. After the curtain fell, he was especially pleased with the Trio in Act III. Stern's voice grew more impressive as the drama proceeded, and his acting talent is comparable to his voice. Otello is more demanding than most tenor roles in Italian opera. Edith Davis
gave this role her best and was singularly impressive in the last act. Roger Roloff
was highly believable as the wily Iago, a role as demanding as the title role. I would be inclined to share top honors between Stern and Roloff, whom I believe was making his first performance as Iago. Miguel Cortez's
performance seemed more impressive in the first act than later, but that could be largely explained by the overwhelming presence of Otello and Iago. Elizabeth Huling
added to her laurels with an Emilia which added much to the evening. The Chorus, particularly the fifteen children from Highland Presbyterian, were memorable, especially when they presented flowers to Desdemona. It was a good beginning for what should be an interesting and entertaining season.