By William Albright
HOUSTON — Otellos don’t grow on trees. But then, neither do Desdemonas. Thus, it was noteworthy that not one but two newcomers to those daunting, iconic roles starred in Houston Grand Opera’s 2014–15 season-opening production of Verdi’s masterpiece on Oct. 24 in Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater.
Tenors essaying the title part need heaps of virtually Wagnerian power as well as dynamic finesse, not to mention acting chops. The role of Otello’s tragically wronged wife makes similar demands on Verdi sopranos and is no less challenging. Desdemona must embody innocence and anguish, both musically and dramatically, from start to finish. There is none of Violetta’s or Gilda’s glittering coloratura or the heroic flourishes brandished by Nabucco’s Abigaille or Attila’s Odabella; Desdemona’s music calls for flowing cantilena, command of loud and soft, and the ability to touch listeners’ hearts that make another Verdi heroine, Aida, such a special experience for sopranos and opera-goers alike.
Making her role and HGO debuts in this co-production from Los Angeles Opera, Teatro Regio di Parma, and Opéra de Monte-Carlo, rising star Ailyn Pérez was resoundingly successful in an assignment that has both featured and created divas. The list of famous Desdemonas includes Nellie Melba, Elisabeth Rethberg, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, and Renée Fleming. Kiri te Kanawa became an overnight sensation in 1974 with a Metropolitan Opera debut as the last-minute replacement for an indisposed Teresa Stratas on a Saturday afternoon Otello broadcast.
The Chicago-born Pérez commands a winning stage manner, a full mid-range, smooth legato, and steadiness in all registers. Her soprano has enough power for Desdemona’s passionate denials of Otello’s accusations of infidelity in the “Dio ti giocondi” duet, and she easily dispatched the arching fortissimo phrases in the massive ensemble that caps the third act. In addition, she can sing meltingly softly, even if hers is not the most ethereal, disembodied pianissimo in memory; she delivered the heroine’s valedictory “Willow Song” with tender introspection and a nicely floated A-flat to end the “Ave Maria.”
Simon O’Neill sang his first onstage Otello only last summer, for Opera Australia, but gave a vocally assured and dramatically vital performance here. Though lacking mass and short on coloristic variety, his keen, steady tenor was powerfully ringing on top. HGO first-timer Marco Vratogna made a vocally potent and suavely evil Iago. But his singing was often under-pitch and his substitute for a supported, “connected” mezza-voce — a key ingredient in the schemer’s oily dream narrative — was a breathy, relatively toneless stage whisper.
HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers’ conducting emphasized thrust and sweep while not neglecting expressive breadth, and Richard Bado’s chorus of Cypriots, clad by scenery and costume designer Johan Engels in long white robes and turbans, sang with house-filling gusto. Evocatively lighted by Michael James Clark, John Cox’s staging encompassed both panoply and intimacy on Engels’ uncluttered set, basically a gently swooping ramp-like playing area with the mouths of big square tunnels on either side for entrances and exits. Some grass, a bench, and a large blasted tree branch served for the garden scene, but use of drops and other elements enriched the stage picture elsewhere.
When the curtain rose for the bows, Pérez and O’Neill were standing onstage alone. Knowing how well his colleague’s very first Desdemona had gone, O’Neill raised their clasped hands high and seemed to urge her to step forward for a solo call. The gracious recognition was deserved.
William Albright is a freelance writer in Houston.