SARASOTA — All the years of Verdi at Sarasota Opera pay off in Otello, arguably the composer's greatest work, which opened a week ago. The company's cycle to perform everything in the Verdi canon, begun in 1989, is in its final stretch, due to wind up in 2016. It's hard to imagine anything better than this impeccable production of his adaptation, with Boito's brilliant libretto, of Shakespeare's tragedy Othello.
Rafael Davila has performed other Verdi roles in Sarasota through the years, with solid but underwhelming results, and I was a little dubious about the prospect of him as the tormented Moor. But his portrayal is absolutely gripping, in part because his Otello gives the fascinating impression of being not so much the noble commander but rather a more disreputable sort, a street fighter who clawed his way to the top to become ruler of the Venetian fleet, riddled with insecurity about his lofty position and (obviously) his relationship with his young wife, Desdemona. Davila's honeyed tenor is a given, but on opening night he brought a rough, brooding passion to Otello's insane jealousy.
As Iago, the ensign who plants the seeds of paranoia in Otello's fevered brain, Sean Anderson gave a richly diabolical performance of his Credo that never fails to shock with its nihilistic blasphemy ("Heaven is an old wife's tale"). Desdemona seems to lie very well on Maria D'Amato's voice, which floated beautifully above the fray, the innocent cause of so many tears in the drama. Her Act 4 "Willow Song" was a gem.
All three principals — Davila, Anderson and D'Amato — are making debuts in the roles. Their excellence is a testament to the Sarasota approach of a long, carefully considered rehearsal period, enhanced by the company's historic immersion in Verdi's operas. Among the minor roles, Heath Huberg is a more youthful Cassio than is ideal, though maybe his lack of gravitas makes him a more persuasive object of Otello's suspicions. Cynthia Hanna was a sympathetic Emilia, the only ally Desdemona has in a fiercely patriarchal culture.
Victor DeRenzi, in his 30th season as artistic director, conducted magnificently, as befits a musician who has delved deeply into Verdi's scores. Director Stephanie Sundine is unusually adept at cultivating the relationships between an opera's characters, as exemplified by the naturalistic feel of a scene like Otello and Desdemona's gentle duet to the stars that brings down the Act 1 curtain. Sets (designed by David P. Gordon), costumes (coordinated by Howard Tsvi Kaplan) and lighting design (Ken Yunker) combine to create a lavish Renaissance atmosphere.
Otello is a long haul — four acts, three intermissions, well over three hours — but it is eminently worth the effort, to arrive at the wrenching final tableau in Desdemona's bedroom, with her strangled to death on the bed, the orchestra's music swelling from the pit, and Otello, having stabbed himself, uttering his last words: ". . . a kiss . . . another kiss . . . and yet another kiss."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.