Despite Constraints, 'Otello' is Impressive

While the Lowell House dining hall may pale in comparison to the grandeur of the world famous “Teatro alla Scala” in Milan, both can proudly boast of producing engaging opera on a grand scale. True to its billing as Harvard’s “flagship annual opera,” the Lowell House Opera (LHO) offered an impressive production of Giuseppe Verdi’s four-act masterwork “Otello” for its 71st annual show, especially considering the constraints of its venue.

The LHO’s production—which runs through March 14 with a rotating cast—represents months of preparation by a small army of volunteers including Harvard undergraduates, graduate students, numerous musicians, and singers both amateur and professional, as well as a large production team. The opera was sung in Italian with English supertitles above the stage.

First performed in Milan in 1887, “Otello” was Verdi’s penultimate opera and is widely considered his greatest tragedy. The work represented the great composer’s return from his first retirement and was an immediate success. “Otello” recounts the Shakespearean story (“Othello”) in which a Moorish general is convinced that his wife has become unfaithful and decides to kill her. In one of the program notes, the Stage Director notes that, “Verdi’s ‘Otello’ takes Shakespeare’s play to the next level, bringing the audience deeper into the psyches of its three central characters.”

Among these characters, Andrew Young served as the propelling force for the opera’s emotional intensity in his deft portrayal of the role of Jago. His rendition of “Credo in un Dio crudel” (I believe in a cruel God) illustrated a visceral contempt for justice as the rest of the world sees it. Although his superb dramatic presence never faltered, his voice was occasionally lost amid the din of the vast, 80 person orchestra.

In her portrayal of Otello’s wife Desdemona, Melynda Davis presented a polished performance that was both passionately and exquisitely sung. Davis was able to produce brilliance with her lower voice that was complemented by the fullness of her upper register. She also gave a most entrancing dramatic performance, especially in the opening of the fourth act.

The title role of Otello was sung with gusto by the tenor Brian Landry, whose commanding stage presence and intensity of tone provided a compelling portrayal of the general. He did a marvelous job of conveying the rapidly changing emotions that Otello experiences over the course of the production, but sometimes these shifts were overly dramatic. His singing, which occasionally pushed his voice to its limits, was by and large an impressive performance.

The production’s hero was the orchestra, under the keen direction of Channing Yu ’93. Yu was able to channel all the energy of the 80 member ensemble into moments that spanned the entire emotional spectrum—from sheer joy to complete misery. The sound produced by the orchestra was stylish, heartfelt, and on the whole, refined.

Director Anna Fisher and Producer Sarah Eggleston ’07 led an artistic staff of LHO’s production that was highly commendable. Unlike some modernist opera productions—which sometimes seem too simplistic—“Otello” was a meticulously researched period production. 15th century costumes, a monstrous castle set, and even flags were featured prominently in the production. The set itself proved to be one of the production’s greatest assets. Its multitude of hiding places and doors gave the impression that the stage was much larger than the confined space of the Lowell dining hall could ever allow it to be. If only the dining hall could somehow have a loggione installed, then “Otello” would have truly rivaled a “La Scala” production.