Review- Otello- Opera Hong Kong


By Peter Gordon (guest critic). 


Opera Hong Kong is closing out its commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare with a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” which runs through Sunday at the Cultural Centre. Verdi’s librettist Arrigo Boito followed the original play so tightly that the opera and play on which it is based can hardly be separated. George Bernard Shaw even went so far as to say that “rather than ‘Otello’ being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, it is ‘Othello’ that is a drama by Shakespeare in the style of Italian opera.”Ot(h)ello, furthermore, is a story that has only grown more relevant with the passing of time.

Yes, it is about passion, jealousy, an infamous handkerchief and “one that loved not wisely, but too well”. It is also the story of an immigrant and outsider who, although having risen to the top of both military and political ranks through competence and dedication, is never accepted by society at large. Furthermore, it explores political manipulation through emotional exploitation. Watching the opera in the current political climate would be profoundly depressing if it were not so musically and dramatically stirring.



The opening night performance was as much if not more that any local opera-goer could reasonably hope for. If one can’t make it to Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera or Verona’s Arena, sometimes, if one is lucky, they’ll come to you, and this was one of those times. The production itself was shared with the Opera di Roma and featured a rotating platform which was both simple and efficiently evocative.


The direction was more explicitly choreographed than is typical: the opening scene of crowds and waving flags was reminiscent of Les Miserables. Going somewhat against the trend, in which new Otello in New York, London, and Barcelona eschew the dark-toned makeup that had been pretty much de rigueur since Otello debuted La Scala in 1887, director Maurizio Di Mattia keeps Otello’s ethnic “otherness”. 


He also held Iago on stage at the end: rather than running away, Iago remains to, one is sure, continue to spread poison. Otello needs a tenor who can be both stentorian and lyrical, and in veteran Carlo Ventre, it had one. In an interesting change of pace, baritone Matias Tosi’s Iago was more actively and physically evil than he is wont: Iago's usually stand out for their sliminess. But it was soprano Zhang Liping’s evening: she gave a master class in both musicality and stage presence. Zhang evidently has an intimate knowledge and understanding of her voice and deploys it like a musical instrument. Dramatically, her Desdemona was feistier than most, projecting some steel underneath the pathos. The pianissimos floated; so did she.



Local mezzo-soprano Carol Lin did the relatively small role of Emilia proud, especially in the important dramatic latter part of the final act where she confronts both the now murderous Otello and her scheming husband, Iago.


Chen Yong was lyrical in the by no means fundamental role of Cassio.The chorus soared in the third act ensemble. And finally, the Hong Kong Philharmonic outdid themselves under the baton of Gianluca Martinenghi; it is hard to recall an opera performance here as instrumentally convincing as this one was.


There are two alternating casts over the run: the other with Carl Tanner and Valeria Sepe has similar promise. There may still be some tickets left. If so, get one: it’s a lot cheaper than an airplane ticket.


Otello is running through October 16th at Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. For more information, click here.

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