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May Festival's "Otello" Soars

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: May 23, 2016 - 3:20:56 PM in reviews_2016

Verdi’s opera “Otello” was May Festival music director James Conlon’s choice for the second night of the 2016 Cincinnati May Festival at Music Hall.

   The performance was ideal, with both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and 115-voice May Festival Chorus onstage (the 80-voice Cincinnati Childrens Choir was seated in the balcony adjacent to the stage).  The action – and no mistaking there was plenty of it without sets or costumes – was gripping as the singers made entrances and exits and enhanced their superb music-making with compelling acting.

   Opening with the furious storm scene, it simply drew its listeners in full force and would not let them go.  Starring as Otello was tenor Gregory Kunde, with soprano Tamara Wilson as Desdemona, bass-baritone Egil Silins as Iago, tenor Ben Bliss as Cassio, Sarah Murphy as Emilia, Rodrick Dixon as Roderigo and bass John Cheek as Lodovico, Montana and The Herald. Finer voices could not have been assembled.
    Based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Otello” is about the destructive force of jealousy.  Otello, a Venetian general, is manipulated into believing that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. The villain Iago, an ensign under Otello’s command, hatches the plot because he believes he has been passed up for promotion. Through innuendo, misinterpreted conversations and a misplaced handkerchief, Otello is convinced and murders Desdemona.

   Highlights were many:  the drinking song in act I, Otello and Desdemona’s love duet, also in act I, and Iago’s famous Credo, “Credo in un Dio crudel (“I believe in a cruel god”) in act II.  Silins as Iago drove home his evil manifesto with conviction (“Death is nothingness and heaven is a lie”).

   Kunde as Otello was everywhere convincing, never more so than when Desdemona asks him to forgive Cassio (a captain under his charge sung by tenor Ben Bliss) for his behavior during the drinking scene, thus fueling more doubts about her constancy.

   Soprano Wilson’s Willow Song and Ave Maria in the final act to soft string accompaniment were heartbreaking, and she and Kunde made her death scene both musically and dramatically compelling as she finally slumped against the podium.

   The May Festival continues at 8 p.m. May 27 at Music Hall with Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater.”  For ticket information, call (513) 381-3300.