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Review: Pittsburgh Opera restores Verdi's classic 'Otello' to grand status

| Sunday, Nov. 9, 2014, 1:03 p.m.
David Bachman
Otello (Carl Tanner) accosts Desdemona (Danielle Pastin) when she cannot show him the handkerchief that he gave her, in Pittsburgh Opera's production of 'Otello.'

Giuseppe Verdi at his greatest filled the Benedum Center on Nov. 8 when Pittsburgh Opera gave the first of four performances of “Otello,” last seen here in 1990. Opening night of this production included some outstanding vocalism, superb shaping of the music drama by conductor Antony Walker, and excellent stage direction by Kristine McIntyre.

Pittsburgh Opera's performance began with a powerful realization of the tumultuous opening scene in which general Otello, governor of Cyprus in the 16th century, returns by boat during a heavy storm at night. The chorus was magnificently full-bodied, at first singing with concern about Otello's fate and then with triumph when he makes it safely home and announces the Turks are vanquished.

Baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore was outstanding as Iago, Otello's ensign. Otello believes him to be loyal, but Iago is resentful at being passed over for captain. He encourages the man who was promoted to captain, Cassio, to drink too much and foments a crucial fight, leading to his demotion.

Company general director Christopher Hahn appeared before Act 2 to announce that tenor Carl Tanner was singing the title role with bronchitis. One could hear it from Tanner's first line in Act 1. But in Act 2, his singing improved in strength and tonal focus.

Former company resident artist soprano Danielle Pastin sang Otello's wife Desdemona for the first time in this production. Her voice was beautifully warm in softer passages and possessed the power for confrontations in Acts 2 and 3. She also acted very well. The intimate love scene between Desdemona and Otello that closes the first act was filled with affectionate details.

Michaels-Moore seized control of the action in Act 2, in which Iago offers his Credo: “I believe in a cruel God, who created me in his image and whom, in hate, I name.” The baritone sang his Credo magnificently, in confident voice and with dramatic acuity. Iago poisons Otello psychologically by planting doubt about Desdemona's faithfulness and implicating Cassio.

A special handkerchief Otello gave to Desdemona, which Iago got his hands on in Act 2, was the lynchpin for his plot in Act 3. Iago makes sure Otello sees it while the ensign is speaking with Cassio, after which Otello is convinced his wife has been unfaithful.

Otello's mind is fully poisoned, and his abusiveness extends into the scene in which the Venetian ambassador, weakly sung by Phillip Gay, arrives with an order for Otello to return to Venice.

The last act features Desdemona's two most famous solos, the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria.” Pastin sang beautifully, with ardor and a heavy heart. She has room to grow, particularly in phrase endings, but the arch of her lines was impressive.

Although Tanner was not in his best voice at moments in the opera's final scene, in which he strangles his wife and kills himself, Verdi's music made it a powerful experience.

Secondary roles were effectively handled. Tenor Daniel Curran's growth since he was a resident artist was obvious as he portrayed Cassio. Current resident artists were effective, too. Mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian was excellent as Emilia, Desdemona's maid and Iago's wife. Adam Bonanni, as Roderigo, had more thrust in his voice than when I last heard him.

The overarching strength of this production, Walker and the opera orchestra made the step up to Verdi's demanding score. Strings played with impressive body of sound, if not always with ideal clarity of articulation. The winds had personality, color and some excellent intonation, while the brass played with a power they're rarely given the opportunity to display.

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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