The longest-running opera company in New England – Harvard University’s Lowell House Opera – presented Verdi’s Otello to a sold-out crowd at its black-tie opening on Wednesday March 4, 2009. Consistently sold-out performances continue until Saturday night, March 14.
It is difficult to fathom how a student-run opera company can consistently produce serious operas at a high artistic level – but they do. The previous year’s list of operas is impressive – the Weill/Brecht Three Penny Opera, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Turandot. Part of the secret is talent that is willing to donate their considerable abilities for this experience. The main parts are at least double-cast, so many singers can get a crack at a major role.
In my performance, Othello was played by Brian Landry, who had the lead in Turandot last year. Landry has a voice as large as his body, and equally impressive acting skills. He was marvelous as Othello – authoritative, bold, and passionate. Desdemona, played by Melynda Davis, was equally credible (and audible). The difficult role of Iago was played by Andrew Young with bravado and a few wobbly notes. The real star of the performance was the orchestra, lead with great skill by Channing Yu. Chorus and orchestra were mostly students from the area, joined by recent and not-so-recent graduates from universities all over town. Everyone was having a great time playing Verdi’s powerful score while trying mightily not to drown out the singers.
Lighting, sets, music and acting combined to deliver a powerful experience to the audience. It is one thing to see a great opera like Otello played to an audience of 3,000 in a large theater, where the average seating distance is more than 100 feet. It is quite another to have a more than adequate orchestra and some excellent singers right in your face. (The opera is staged in the Lowell House dining hall, from which tables and chairs have to be cleared after every meal before a performance, which explains why it starts at 8:30.)
The intensity of the drama – one of Shakespeare’s best plays and one of Verdi’s best scores – was often too much for me. I had to shut my eyes and just listen to the music. The tragic ending was as intense as it should be. A great night at the opera! I can’t wait to see what they will do next year.