For a Washington audience submerged in impeachment hysteria and other traumatic political headlines, the intrigues did not stop at the proscenium arch for a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. The tale of murderous jealousy arises from a wretched case of workplace betrayal, which is a familiar subject for many in attendance. At the National Opera’s October 26 performance, which opened its 2019–20 season, an elite audience of patrons, socialites, arts leaders, and political celebrities mixed and overlapped with those dressing up and celebrating five days before what used to be a children’s holiday. I have never before—in perhaps twenty performances of the opera around the world—known an audience to laugh aloud at Iago’s dissembling excuses, biting cynicism, and sheer malevolence, but Washington brims with backstabbers aspiring, however unwittingly, to match wits with him.

George Gagnidze and Russell Thomas in Otello. Photo: Scott Suchman, courtesy Washington National Orchestra.

The director David Alden, who staged a subtly allegorical production of Verdi’s Don Carlo here two seasons ago, offered a rather unimaginative update of this later opera, setting it at the turn of the twentieth century. The trope follows Kenneth Branagh’s picturesque but heavy film version of Hamlet and is now starting to feel overused in Shakespearean theater and opera. Indeed, Bartlett Sher’s recent production of Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, which attracted controversy by abstaining from the traditional use of blackface for its title character, is set in the exact same era. Sher’s effort was ameliorated by some clever stage tricks, but Alden relies on the same monochromatic set—a courtyard inside a worn-down medieval fortress—for all four acts. This does allow the characters and their relationships to emerge in greater relief than in busier productions, but the effect, combined with Jon Morrell’s frowzy costumes, led one to wonder if the opera’s Cypriot setting could not have been presented with more dazzling visual appeal. It also forced Otello to seduce, confront, and then murder Desdemona in what is effectively a public place, vitiating the evolving intimacy of each scene.

The cast of Otello. Photo: Scott Suchman, courtesy Washington National Orchestra.

Under Daniele Callegari’s skilled baton, the Washington National Opera’s orchestra rendered some of its better playing in recent seasons. Otello’s brisk pace must be paired with a dynamic lead from the podium, and the pit brimmed with stormy energy. Washington’s chorus, however, was small and sounded underpowered in the opera’s ensemble moments, which are more symphonic in architecture than the standard Italian opera chorus.

Leah Crocetto and Russell Thomas in Otello. Photo: Scott Suchman, courtesy Washington National Opera.

The fine tenor Russell Thomas essayed the opera’s title role at Deutsche Oper Berlin earlier this year with decidedly mixed results, but he sounded much more comfortable here and faced fewer distractions on account of Alden’s sparse staging. From the treacherous first notes of Otello’s entrance, the resounding call to exult (“Esultate!”) at the Venetians’ victory over the Turks, to the delicacy of his wounded pride, Thomas proved through and through a noble warrior brought down by the flaws of his passions. (To the company’s credit, his second line, which celebrates the destruction of the Muslim naval forces, was not sanitized into something more politically correct in the supertitles.) He was paired delightfully with a Desdemona played by the exquisite soprano Leah Crocetto, who is establishing herself admirably in Verdi heroine roles. Her “Ave Maria,” the late-hour prayer soaked with presentiments of death, rivaled her duet with Thomas as the evening’s highlight. The splendid Georgian baritone George Gagnidze drew on unmatched technique to deliver an Iago that emerged straight out of Golden Age Venice. The raw anger of the character’s vituperative manifesto, a monologue that has no antecedent in Shakespeare (referring, as it does to theories of evolution and the atom), resounded with extraordinary spite. It was a performance of menace that would not be out of place in the back corridors of Capitol Hill.

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