Less is Moor at Grange Park Opera.
Ancora un baccio… or maybe not.
The central role in Verdi’s Otello is a mountain which even Franco Corelli feared to climb, and staging the opera presents many challenges in terms of settings and interaction. Nothing daunted, Grange Park Opera has taken it on with a sombre production by David Alden, in which superb playing by the Gascoigne Orchestra under Gianluca Marcianò, atmospheric lighting by Tim Mitchell and fluent movement by Lynne Hockney, all compensate for a sparse staging and some less than stellar singing.
Otello requires three of the best singers of their time, so it’s not surprising that most productions tend towards a trio of one great, one very good and one less than ideal, and so it was here. Simon Keenlyside’s Iago had been promoted as the star of the show, and so he proved to be. In excellent voice, his tone replete with menace or silky persuasion as required, this Iago was a malevolent presence who easily convinced his volatile superior. It helped that he had been cleverly directed, from his pre-curtain hints of what was to come, to his constant engaging of the audience via glances and gestures.
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Desdemona was presented as a fearful girl whom it was difficult to imagine had defied her father in order to marry a soldier at least twice her age. Her singing was secure, with supple phrasing and much tenderness in the ‘Willow song’, and by the third act she had mostly conquered the rapid vibrato which had affected her earlier performance.
Otello is one of the most challenging tenor roles, and Gwyn Hughes Jones made a game stab at it, although it was a shame that he was burdened with hackneyed stage business in the ‘chuck the chairs about when angry’ style. I once described another tenor’s manner as being “like a big bear looking for somewhere to hibernate”, and that also describes how this one has been portrayed. Subtle, it is not; this is far from Kaufmann’s sensitive, war-torn lover at the Royal Opera House, and although the notes are all there they are sometimes preceded by intrusive aspirates. He did scale down his stentorian tones for the love duet and the final ‘Ancor’ un baccio’ which were both most impressive.
“Simon Keenlyside’s Iago had been promoted as the star of the show, and so he proved to be”
The smaller parts were thoughtfully cast, especially Olivia Ray’s gentle Emilia and Elgan Llŷr Thomas’ lyrical Cassio, and Anthony Flaum was a convincingly dapper yet lovelorn Roderigo. Matthew Brook and Alan Ewing were both luxury casting as Lodovico and Montano respectively. The Chorus sang superbly, creating a fearsome sound in the storm scene.
Gianluca Marcianò obtained superb playing from the Gascoigne Orchestra, whipping up a frenzied storm in Act I and accompanying the singers with supple understanding. The string playing in the exquisite ‘love duet’ was truly moving, and the clashing sounds of conflict startlingly well portrayed.
‘Well, at least the poor girl got a bed to die on’ might be said of the production, although surely even the most sparse army barracks would come up with something a bit more plush for the General and his wife? In the event, she’s murdered on the floor, very much as the luckless heroine experienced in Alden’s English National Opera version. As with that one, we have a vast, lonely space, with many chairs (for knocking over and tossing about) with the addition of a blue/grey curtain which resembles the design of the soft furnishings on a cruise ship. One might perhaps say that it forces concentration upon the action.
The production is redeemed by Tim Mitchell’s superb management of shadow and nuance in the lighting, which allows Charlie Edwards’ set designs to fade into the darkness or merge into the light. The use of shadows appearing enlarged behind the characters added a special frisson to the action of what is a mostly well sung production which is unlikely to frighten anyone’s horses.
• Details of future performances can be found here.