After 25 years, Virginia Opera is ready to tackle "Otello," Verdi's musically and dramatically challenging work.
The Power of Song
October 13, 15, 17 1999
8 p.m. (Sunday at 2:30 p.m.)
643-6004 or Ticketmaster It is the end of a century. Boundaries between cultures are fragmented and fraying. Politically ambitious people with nefarious intent use subterfuge, espionage and deceit to accomplish the downfall of flawed, passionate and woefully naive people. This is not a voice-over to the opening credits of a CNN roundtable talk show, but the premise of "Otello," Shakespeare's brutal tale recast as an opera by the hand of Guiseppe Verdi. For the first time in its 25-year history, Virginia Opera will stage Verdi's final tragic masterwork at the Carpenter Center Oct. 13, 15 and 17. According to Peter Mark, the opera's general and artistic director, it has taken this long for the company to develop to the point of being able to mount this fantastically difficult work. "It makes such demands on the orchestra, musically and dramatically," he explains. "Otello" is monumental, but audiences won't be drummed into a coma by the sheer length of the work. Mark offers assurances that "actually, it's a very compact opera. There are four very short acts, a half an hour each." Verdi, writing at the height of his talents, compresses tremendous emotional power into each act, and Arrigo Boito, the librettist who wooed Verdi out of semi-retirement, winnowed Shakespeare's 3,500 lines down to 800. "You are put through a ringer in a sense," Mark says. "... all that power is condensed into very concise statements." Manipulation of power is a theme of the opera, and an ability to channel power is what is required by its principals. "Just to say [the role of] Otello is a tenor does not even begin to describe the kind of tenor required," Mark says. Ronald Hamilton, in his Virginia Opera debut, is portraying Otello for the first time. Hamilton's years of filling out the titanic roles found in Wagner's operas have prepared him for what is widely understood to be one of the most difficult and exhausting roles in opera. Hamilton emphatically underscores this point. "It is the most taxing role in the Italian repertoire," he says. The tessitura, or the range of pitches a melody encompasses, is quite high, and Verdi's writing often requires that the tenor burst out of the gates at full throttle. If one were to sing Otello's role from start to finish, it would require 45 minutes of nonstop singing that's about half the length of Tristan, a Wagnerian role Hamilton has sung before, but still a daunting task. But whether portraying Tristan or his newly acquired Otello, Hamilton employs the same strategy to conquering a character. "I attack a role practically the same from both repertoires," he says. "I look at the text first." The drama mandates a careful attention to character. Hamilton points out that "Otello" is "music theater in the Wagnerian sense," combining the luxurious Italian melodies most people associate with opera with more Germanic notions of continuity of action and drama. "Otello" "doesn't romanticize or buck any issues," adds Mark. "There are so many more unresolved issues in this [opera]. ... It's really the culmination of Verdi's work in terms of the dramatic repertoire." "Otello," directed by Robin Guarino and conducted by Mark, will also feature Nmon Ford-Livene as Iago, Anna Singer as Desdemona, and Adam Klein in the role of