Grand opera needn't be big to be grand. This was apparent in the Eastern Opera of NJ concert semi-staged performance of Verdi's Otello presented last Sunday at Dolan Hall at the College of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, New Jersey. Using a small orchestra under the direction of Maestro Robert W. Butts, who also masterfully did the reduction of Verdi's much larger original, the drama focused on the three principal characters providing an intimacy which intensified the emotions in the score.
Maestro Butts is to be lauded for carrying off one of the most complex operas in the literature with such aplomb! His uncanny ability to bring out all the nuances of a large orchestral scoring to the essentials is really amazing! And the fact that the orchestra was behind the singers, yet he kept everything together wonderfully. The instrumental solos, especially Elizabeth Engelberth's English horn solo in "Salce" and Norman F. Edges' bass solo in the same act could have come from any professional opera orchestra. Bravi tutti!
The roles of Otello and Desdemona were performed by the husband/wife team of Peter and Karole Lewis, which added a poignant and palpable presence in their duets. Peter had an imposing physical presence with a gleaming rich tenor voice which became harsher and edgier as Otello sinks deeper into mad jealousy. His almost brotherly love for Iago was noticeable, not once suspecting his friend was full of such treachery. When Lewis sang the two words "Otello fu!" (Otello is finished), he physically and vocally summed up his fate. And Ted Dougherty as Iago had almost too beautiful a voice than normally heard in the role, but this too gave a chilling angle on the bitter evil of his character was coated with honey but effectively poisoning Otello's mind.
Karole Lewis' assumption of Desdemona, I think it was the finest reading of the role I've ever seen- her voice and acting gave a complete potrait of the character, from rhapsodic devotion to her husband in Act One, to the warm sympathy towards her people and to Cassio, her uncomprehending humiliation in Act Three, and her almost unbearable grief and sadness in her rendition of the "Willow Song" and prayer in Act Four as she prepares for her fate. What an extraordinary singing actress!
The "minor" roles of Cassio and Roderigo were very capably done by Dmitri Barth and ira Barth who both sang well and for once looked the right ages! I guess "Otello" was the original "Three Tenors" show! Anthony Alberti presented Montano with a rich sonorous bass, and Steve Fredericks' Lodivico should have been given more to sing with his warm baritone. The role of Emilia was sung by Kim Lewis in her operatic debut. The small chorus belied their numbers but truly had a crucial role in setting the scenes and providing the contrast for the the soloists.
Otello will be repeated in fully staged production August 16 at 7:00 PM, August 17 at 8:00 PM and August 18 at 3:00 PM at the Brook Theater, 10 Hamilton Street, Bound Brook, New Jersey.
E. Michael Markwis is an active musician, educator and music critic in New Jersey. He currently teaches piano and voice at The Calderone School of Music.