Martinez lifts a mixed “Otello” to open Lyric Opera’s season

October 07, 2013
Johan Botha and Ana Maria Martinez star in Lyric Opera's "Otello," which opened the company's season Saturday night. Photo: Dan Rest

Johan Botha and Ana Maria Martinez star in Lyric Opera’s “Otello,” which opened the company’s season Saturday night. Photo: Dan Rest

The Lyric Opera’s season-opening performance of Otello had even more drama than usual Saturday night, most of it unplanned. For verisimilitude, Chicago was hit by a thunderstorm and downpour that atmospherically set the scene for the swirling tempest that opens Verdi’s penultimate opera.

More crucially, Falk Struckmann, the evening’s Iago, withdrew after Act 1, citing “extreme allergies.” The curtain announcement by general director Anthony Freud was as unexpected as it was baffling since the German baritone had been singing with robust tone and dramatic command, having just thrown off a swaggering Brindisi.

Todd Thomas, who was covering the role, went on in Struckmann’s place. And while the veteran singer’s raspy baritone felt undeniably light for the role, Thomas brought committed dramatic instincts to the arch-villain. He clearly earned the glittery opening-night audience’s gratitude, and was rewarded with the loudest curtain-call ovation for saving the evening.

Yet, even apart from the Iago casting drama, the Lyric’s opening Otello couldn’t quite seem to find its footing for most of the performance. There were moments of worthy singing yet far too little emotional intensity or depth of characterization in what is one of Verdi’s most searing and psychologically penetrating operas.

Johan Botha has to shoulder most of the blame for the lack of dramatic frisson. Vocally, the South African tenor’s singing was solid and often inspired, which was itself a concern since Botha withdrew from the Met’s Otello a year ago after a painful opening night outing. (He later returned to finish the rest of the run.)

Botha’s Esultate! entrance aria was firmly focused and his singing ardent in the love duet. His Si, pel ciel with Iago had little of the roiling excitement it should, though Botha conveyed Otello’s belated regret and guilt for his murderous, ill-founded jealousy with an interior and expressively shaded Niun mi tema.

Yet, much as Otello is undone by his fatal flaw of jealousy—aided and abetted by Iago—Botha’s performance and, indeed, the entire production was undermined by Botha’s stolid acting. Dramatically, this Moor is definitely less.

The tenor has enjoyed success at Lyric Opera in Lohengrin and last season’s acclaimed Meistersinger. But in these Wagner roles one can get by on sheer stamina since the long tableau-like scenes are static and don’t require much acting ability.

The role of Otello calls for something more. No one is expecting a Placido Domingo-level Otello performance but a singer has to be able to bring some dramatic cut to the table, conveying the character’s malevolence and capacity for explosive violence as Iago’s poison works on his increasingly unhinged mind.

And while Botha was somewhat more engaged than in previous Lyric outings, the rotund singer’s lack of energy and dramatic depth was a drag on the evening. The tenor was too often reliant on old-fashioned “opera acting” that seemed far too mild and lightweight for the desperate jealousy of the murderous Moorish general. When Desdemona asks him “Why are you so angry?” we wonder why she asks, because Botha’s Otello doesn’t seem all that upset.

Ana Maria Martinez isn’t an ideal vocal fit for the doomed Desdemona. In this role debut, her straitened lirico-dramatic soprano has the volume but not the tonal richness or amplitude to expand into the big high notes, as with the love duet (Gia nella notte densa).

Yet Martinez is a gifted and resourceful artist and provided the much-needed dramatic element Saturday as well as the finest singing of the evening. The soprano conveyed the confusion, hurt and rising terror of Otello’s unjustly accused wife, singing with fragile, hollow tone after Otello’s public humiliation of her.

Martinez rose to the challenge of the final scene superbly, with a graceful Willow Song and a heart-breaking Ave Maria, rendered with glowing tone and hushed pianissimos.

As the unwitting tool of Iago’s machinations, Antonio Poli was a worthy Cassio, displaying a vibrant if fitfully wobbly tenor. John Irvin was a strong Rodrigo, Evan Boyer an authoritative Lodovico, Julie Anne Miller, a dramatically unfocused Emilia.

In his Lyric Opera debut, Bertrand de Billy proved a serviceable presence in the pit—apart from fitfully burying the singers at moments of high drama, most notably Botha’s Esultate! high note, which was inaudible under a loud brass chord. Still, with the memory of Riccardo Muti’s Macbeth and Otello with the CSO, the bar for Verdi conducting in Chicago is a high one these days, and too much of the composer’s remarkable scoring was skated over. The orchestral reflection of Otello’s unraveling mind went barely explored under the French conductor’s brisk, technocratic direction.

Aided by Duane Schuler’s painterly lighting, the simple elegance of the 2001 Sir Peter Hall-John Gunter production remains effective, with its tri-level Globe Theatre-like principal set, and the striking towering canopy bed for Act 4. Updating the action to the early 20th-century is less inspired with the ladies’ bonnets and top hats looking as if we’ve somehow segued from Cyprus into the Ascot opening day.

Taking over directorial duties from Hall, Ashley Dean moved traffic skillfully with a couple marked lapses. Placing the women’s chorus in Act 2 behind the latticed doors was an odd bit of staging, and having Iago and Otello high-five each other after the oath duet provided the evening’s most bizarre visual. The final confrontation between Otello and Desdemona needed much greater fire and intensity but there’s a limit to what a director can accomplish with as uninspired an actor as Botha.

The most consistent element of the evening was the extraordinary singing of the Lyric Opera Chorus.

The Lyric chorus has always been a superb ensemble but the blast of brilliant choral tone in the opening scene pinned one’s ears back Saturday night. In his first production as permanent chorus master Michael Black has worked miracles, turning an already fine chorus into a stunning and magnificent ensemble.

Otello runs through November 2.; 312-332-2244.

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