LOS ANGELES : Music Center Revives Glory of ‘Otello’

“Otello” is back.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Music Center Opera put its first production on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage--an “Otello” directed by Gotz Friedrich, designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen and featuring the fledgling company’s artistic consultant, Placido Domingo, in the title role. Saturday, it revived that effort.

There are repertory and economy subtexts here, besides a reprise of inaugural glories, but having such a production in stock already--and it is just one among several--says much for the high aims and accomplishment of the company. Next month returns “Salome,” the widely acclaimed and traveled production also from Music Center Opera’s first season.

“Otello” was not received with quite the same degree of enthusiasm and admiration as “Salome,” and it seems to have changed in ways large and small. Most important, Jeannette Aster--Friedrich’s associate director for the original--has inherited the staging, and gone are any precursory hints of hysteria in Otello’s character.


The Moor, of course, remains susceptible to sudden, larger-than-life emotions. But he begins as a bona-fide hero.

That suited Domingo well. From his clarion “Esultate!” entrance, he exerted the easy authority of one used to command, and let the overwhelming feeling of the Love Duet reveal tenderness and sincerity rather than weakness. He sang freely and cleanly, supporting both legato lyricism and incoherent mania with appropriate sound, and made the swift blossoming of Iago’s seeds of suspicion as dramatically credible as possible.

As Iago, Justino Diaz was an equally imposing presence, vocally and theatrically. The erstwhile bass had little trouble with the range, and proved as cynically menacing in pianissimo insinuation as in bold incitement or iron triumph.

In her company debut, Ilona Tokody offered a sweet, sympathetic portrait of Desdemona. Her warm soprano, though, was occasionally compromised with a slow, wide vibrato that lent a rather matronly aspect to her vocal characterization.


Conductor John De Main, an early substitute for Lawrence Foster, let the bolstered Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra participate fully in the drama. He kept the action alertly paced, and accompanied sensitively while attending to orchestral, psychological and narrative nuance.

A pity, then, that Aster did not trust Verdi’s vivid orchestral Maelstrom to launch the opera. The curtain rose on the dark and stormy Cyprus night, not to Verdi’s music but to the sounds of apparently a wind-machine and taped surf. Only after these spuriously realistic cues could the music begin, and it must be reinforced with more artificial nature.

In general, Aster seemed to emphasize the more realistic and overtly theatrical elements of Friedrich’s staging, rather than its intermittment bows to stylization and symbolism. Certainly it was the stony realism of Schneider-Siemssen’s looming, ultimately claustrophobic set that was played to, rather its quirky abstractions.

The chorus, supplied by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, contributed its own heroics to the storm scene, and made its presence effective in the other massed scenes with clear, resonant singing. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang prettily, if not in complete coordination, in presenting Desdemona with flowers.

From the 1986 cast, Jonathan Mack returned as a blandly befuddled, lyrically ardent Cassio; Alice Baker as a forceful, supportive Emilia; Stephen Plummer as a light-voiced, suitably ineffectual Roderigo; and Michael Gallup as a bluff Montano. Louis Lebherz introduced a solid, dignified Lodovico.