Iago (Matias Tosi, right) and Otello (Carlo Ventre) in a still from the play. Photos: Opera Hong Kong

Arts review: Verdi’s Otello – the parts are greater than the whole

Hong Kong Opera’s production of the classic featured a pure storyline and crystalline singing, although the performers were not well matched

Martin Lim

Perhaps the only thing that was able to haul an ageing Giuseppe Verdi out of retirement (besides a greedy publisher) was his long time love for Shakespeare – an author he knew only in translation, and who had very few Italian readers. The composer’s final works, Otello and Falstaff, channelled the full range of his beloved playwright’s tragic and comedic prowess into a much different life on the opera stage.

Otello loses more from Shakespeare’s Othello than just the extra “h”, with Arrigo Boito’s libretto greatly compressing the play’s language and emotional complexity.

Off the battlefield, the Moorish general is gullible to the point of disbelief. Iago, who fully rationalises his disloyalty in Shakespeare’s original, becomes mere evil incarnate. And yet, Verdi’s score conveys a level of emotional intensity that words alone could never attain. The opera opens on board a ship rocking amidst a storm and keeps building from there.

Otello wracked with guilt after killing his wife Desdemona (Zhang Liping).
Maurizio di Mattia’s production for Opera Hong Kong is theatrically charged in the old sense of the term, free from self-conscious modernisations.

Rather than spinning contemporary ruminations of sexual jealousy or racial hatred, he plays it straight, trusting those strains to resonate from the traditional story. (Set designer Andrea Miglio’s tilted crucifix subtly conveyed the tensions between the Islamic Otello and his Venetian environs.)

On opening night on Thursday, tenor Carlo Ventre’s Otello made his first entrance with clarion clarity. Soprano Zhang Liping’s Desdemona maintained a crystalline purity from the start. Baritone Matias Toso’s Iago frequently lit up the stage, revelling in nastiness nearly to the point of being camp (put him in red tights and Tosi could easily have been playing Mephistopheles).

Tosi (right) and Ventre in a still from the play.
Vocally, however, the central trio was less well matched. Alone, each commanded the stage, with Zhang’s Willow Aria and Ave Maria from Act IV being particularly touching. Together, a variance in pitch (Zhang descending from above, Ventre in particular scooping from below) led to uneasy ensembles that took several moments to come together.

Singers in smaller roles fared more consistently, with Carol Lin’s Emilia and Chen Yong’s Cassio being the standouts.

Verdi’s score remains the most mature of his tragic operas, incorporating just enough of Wagner’s innovations to transcend traditional Italian divisions between aria and recitative.

Conductor Gianluca Martinenghi structurally maintained a dramatic through line, and kept a tight rein on his musical forces.

The Opera Hong Chorus and Children’s Chorus moved well and sang well, though not always at the same time. The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra maintained a fine balance, never drowning out the singers. And yet, occasional imprecisions in rhythm and pitch made it seem as if the performers on stage had difficulty hearing the players in the pit.


Opera Hong Kong

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre

Reviewed: October 13