The latest installment in Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras’ highly regarded series of opera performances conducted by Music Director Federico Cortese took place on Sunday at Sanders Theater. Verdi’s Otello was performed by two orchestras—one for Acts I and II, another for Acts III and IV—joined by the choral ensembles BYSO Opera Chorus, Convivium Musicum, Voices Boston, and, of course, a fine cast of professional singers. The opera’s title role makes famously formidable vocal demands of even genuine heldentenors; the BYSO chose wisely in Simon O’Neill who has worked with a large number of top-rank international conductors as a principal artist at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals. Stage Director Edward Berkeley and Cortese made imaginative, maximum use of Sanders Theater, a space not well suited to opera. Because there is no orchestra pit and Verdi’s sizable orchestra occupies most of the stage, singers (choruses especially) frequently had to sing with little or no view of the conductor, but the inevitable sprawlings of ensemble were minor and infrequent. And if faulty intonation was an occasional problem of the orchestras, it was largely offset, for me, by the beauty and passion of the playing. The instrumentalists seemed to be consistently listening to the powerful singing they collaborated with, and, under a similarly attentive and inspired conductor, they attained an emotional depth and maturity of sound well beyond their tender years.
Verdi’s Otello (as opposed to Shakespeare’s) opens with a violent storm which Cortese and the orchestra created vividly. Otello, having just survived the wreck of his ship as it made port in Cyprus, makes one of the grandest entrances in opera. Despite the spatial limitations of the stage, O’Neill, chorus, and orchestra were magnificent here, vigorously praising not only the survival of Otello, his soldiers and sailors, but also their recent triumph over a Muslim fleet. The choral celebration, with its rapid triplets, was the first feat of coordination of forces—accomplished impressively by Cortese, chorus, and orchestra. The second appearance of Otello, to break up a brawl engineered by Iago, featured a bizarre bit of costuming; O’Neill appeared in a studded black leather jacket and leather pants with an almost comically prominent codpiece. This was the one misstep in otherwise conventional and effective costuming, and regrettably, it lasted through Act III. It is to O’Neill’s credit that he still managed, with voice and stance, to communicate something of an air of authority while thus attired. Act I ended with Otello and Desdemona recalling how they fell in love over stories of the Moor’s exploits. Soprano Raquel González and O’Neill sang with exceptional intimacy, and the orchestra played with commensurate delicacy. The couple watching the Pleiades slip beneath the sea was a moment of memorable beauty.
Act II largely belongs to Iago, who early on shares his credo that he was created in the image of a cruel god, that the noblest attributes of humankind are a lie, that there is no afterlife, etc. Baritone Weston Hurt powerfully seized on his most dramatic solo, making us realize that though Iago has very specific reasons for hating Otello, he is also malignant by nature. This creed complements his much subtler activity through the rest of the Act, consisting of a cat and mouse game as Otello tries to extract the “terrible monster” from Iago’s mind (the slander of Desdemona) and further gradual poisoning of the Moor’s mind. Hurt convincingly encompassed, vocally and dramatically, the full gamut of the character’s pronouncements, from the hectoring high points of the credo to the sotto voce insinuations in Otello’s ear. The bright spot of the Act occurs when the Cypriot women, sailors, and children serenade Desdemona and offer her flowers and various precious gifts. The choruses sang individually before combining, to charming effect. O’Neill then let us see how Otello starts to come unhinged (“Now and forever farewell, sacred memories”), lashing out at Iago as the bearer of bad news. However, as ever, the clever villain easily manipulates Otello, redirecting his wrath, and the two conclude the Act with a mighty joint appeal to the god of vengeance to hurl thunderbolts at Cassio, Desdemona’s supposed partner in adultery. O’Neill, Hurt, and the orchestra were electrifying.
Act III opens with Iago giving instructions to Otello for setting a trap to incriminate Cassio and Desdemona. The subsequent dialogue between the Moor and his wife is notable for the number and diversity of his emotional responses to her intercessions for Cassio as she unwittingly reinforces Otello’s certainty of her guilt. González and the orchestra achieved a particularly beautiful and moving moment when Desdemona bares her heart and soul to her husband. After pushing his wife away, Otello in despair sings a broken-hearted lament but soon works himself back into a righteous fury, having decided that Desdemona must die. O’Neill touched the heart with lovely soft singing, enhanced by the orchestra’s sighs, before the exciting crescendo to scorching rage. The final highlight of the Act is the fanfare for the arriving ambassador of the Venetian Doge. Cortese had placed trumpeters in every available corner of the uppermost level of the hall, playing first antiphonally, then en masse; the fact that some were not even visible only added to the frisson. This was capped by the heroic and thrilling fortissimo entry of the choruses saluting the Doge (“Hurrah! Long live the Lion of San Marco!”), arrayed in the aisles among and around the audience.
Following the tremendous conclusion of Act III, the opening of Act IV provides a stark contrast: Desdemona preparing for bed with the assistance of Emilia, her attendant and Iago’s wife. With a premonition of death, Desdemona sings the famous “Willow Song”, a lament for love gone wrong. González was affecting here, subtly drawing back her tone for each repetition of “salce” (willow); the orchestral sound, too, was very beautiful and mournful. Desdemona then kneels and prays, beginning and finishing with the “Ave Maria”. The conclusion (“pray for us . . . at the hour of our death. Ave! Amen.”) is one of Verdi’s finest inspirations, and this rendering could hardly have failed to moisten eyes, with González’s final floated pianissimo high A and string-playing of seraphic purity in the coda. Her presentiment is proven all too accurate when Otello—at last, suitably attired again—appears and, after urging her to make her final confession (she can only confess to loving him), he smothers her. O’Neill, González, and the orchestra made a spine-tingling dramatic and musical crescendo to the horrific killing. Following it, mezzo soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, as the returning Emilia, was fearless, fiery and defiant, decrying first Otello for the murder, then, having realized that her husband’s treachery intentionally caused it, denouncing Iago. Otello, having belatedly recognized his wife’s chastity, mourns her as a “beautiful, pious creature born under an evil star” before stabbing himself and expiring in a final kiss. O’Neill sang with deep pathos, intensely grieving over Desdemona’s body and drawing a lifelike portrait of “one that lov’d not wisely but too well.” A snarling brass crescendo imparted menace as Otello pulled out a hidden dagger to kill himself. The wonderfully rich final orchestral chords seemed to remind us that before Iago’s manipulations Otello had been a man of great nobility and that, possibly, he thought suicide was his best hope to atone for his great crime. The audience, on its feet, applauded long and heartily.
Though none had an extended aria, the supporting cast members were also fine singers and actors who made vital contributions: tenor Daniel Curran (Cassio), tenor Neal Ferreira (Roderigo), baritone Andrew Garland (Lodovico), bass-baritone David Cushing (Montano), and tenor Andy Papas (Herald). BYSO has a clear winner in its opera series: the young instrumentalists plainly love playing opera with outstanding singers, and audiences respond in kind. Indeed, before this sold-out performance there seemed to be significant numbers of people around ticket tables, hoping against hope that a seat might open up. It might be time for the organization to consider offering two performances of each opera. Many music-lovers have detected the smell of success.