Summer hues still lend their lustre to the city centre as the curtain is raised at Cape Town’s premier Opera House. It is doubtful that Verdi, born in 1813, foresaw a postcolonial world or believed that his dazzling opera would be performed in remote southern climes but the Artscape’s Otello is a breathtaking production that does full justice to the Italian composer’s bicentenary.
Unlike any other opera that I have ever seen, this production is the culmination of a titanic collaboration between six southern hemisphere opera houses and brings together musical talent from across the globe. I was simply blown away by George Stevens who plays Jago, one of the most vocally and emotionally intimidating roles in the production. This South African-born maestro now lives in Germany and has performed across Europe but it is a privilege to have him back on home soil. His swaggering demeanor, strident baritone and consistent commitment to the persona of an illustrious villain is the psychological hook that splices and strings together this four act play. His ruthless manipulation of Cassio and Otello make his anti-heroic schemes the centre-piece of a glittering operatic table and grant thematic substance to this musical feast.
Even though Stevens gives the stand-out performance, one’s sympathies do reside with the ruined love of Otello and Desdemona. Badri Maisuradze, who plays Otello, is a renowned veteran based at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow whilst Sarah-Jane Brandon, Desdemona, is a rising South African star. Despite their very different backgrounds their vocals become beautifully and seamlessly encircled by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, faultlessly conducted by Brad Cohen.
Maisuradze and Brandon’s duets are some of the most evocative moments of Otello. By the time the famous “Kiss” motif recurs in the final scenes, the depth of his tenor coupled with her soaring soprano mean that the intensity of the music encapsulates the pathos and despair of an entire relationship within a few short moments.
The decision to set this aurally sumptuous experience on an aircraft carrier, with the cast in contemporary army print, is a controversial one. But as director Simon Phillips explains, he was looking for a “closed and claustrophobic world” in which there was a “tangible” sense of the military, making Otello’s “recourse to violence as a solution more understandable”. Consequently, we see Otello spying on Desdemona via CCTV – a perhaps necessarily uncomfortable result, but one that modernises the sublime and dramatic music of this opera in a way that, for this reviewer, somewhat detracts from the gravitas of this classic tragedy.
Nonetheless Phillip’s efforts remain a tour de force in terms of artfully coordinating opera houses from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In this regard, he achieves a remarkable feat in ensuring that this multi-cultural cast and crew are pitch perfect and continue to complement and support each other throughout the duration of a lengthy production.
Operas are meant to be powerful but Cape Town Opera’s Otello is particularly resounding. Long after the show was over, I could still recall Desdemona’s spiralling tones as she passionately insists on the innocence of her lover or Otello’s inconsolable, insufferable regret and violent suicide. These memories are etched in my mind but for others they remain an exquisite pleasure to still be experienced as this show plans to run for the next five years and will travel to both Australia and New Zealand.
While I have no doubt that Otello will continue to impress on distant shores, there was something particularly special about Saturday’s performance. Maybe it was the visceral energy of an opening night or the exhilaration of a new production but I have seldom been treated to such a striking musical experience. This cosmopolitan rendition of Verdi’s masterpiece offers a kaleidoscope of international talent and reinforces the ability of Cape Town Opera to produce the very finest in contemporary classical music.
Otello runs at the Artscape from 6 – 13 April