The coc’s Otello: fly don’t run to the box office

A scene from the English National Opera's  Otello , 2014, photo by Alastair Muir. (

A scene from the English National Opera's Otello, 2014, photo by Alastair Muir. (

yes yes i know you can’t review a production based on its dress rehearsal, so i’ll file this under the category of gossipy preview---

it’s almost six years now since the COC produced Peter Grimes and i became forever convinced of opera as the grandest stage in theatre. much of my awe at that production was directed at the ferocity and scale of a deranged chorus and, as a counterweight, ben heppner’s dramatic tenor. with Otello, gerald finley’s Iago is the deranged force of nature and the chorus is the one scrambling to maintain it’s spirited devotion to the title character. it is by a razor thin margin that finley fails to steal the show. reminiscent of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood, his nihilistic rage and machiavellian tactics  are delicious. in both Peter Grimes and Otello, the chorus (at the command of the indispensable sandra horst) is a reminder of what is especially unique about the operatic experience: it’s not the plot alone that moves us, but the gargantuan proportions of it’s scale, it’s good conscience in  regards to the amplification of even the most subtle emotional states.

the production opens on the fever pitch of a chorus narrating an off-stage duel between Otello’s naval fleet and that of ‘the Turks’ in a grand opening that sets the stage for Otello’s dramatic entrance: flag in hand and flanked by a platoon, marching down center-stage. such a grand entrance, usually, fades into the background as the character settles into the expositional dialogue of plot development, but the intensity of russell thomas’ concentration as his character wades through rapid currents of emotional vicissitudes, never wanes. when he sings for one more kiss ( "ancor'un bacio") to tamara wilson’s Desdemona in act one, we believe in man a of simple and steadfast love as much as we believe in his madness and turmoil in act three when he is prostrated and convulsing while Iago boasts the potency of his ‘poison’. and from the title character to Desdemona’s maid (carolyn sproule) the quality of the acting is worthy of cinematic close-ups.

aside from the acting, this production is also an especially active one. going the length of an opera without a scene change is a risk worth taking when the characters are sung by performers who can convincingly interact with the set---tearing a flag into handkerchiefs, throwing furniture, hanging a picture on the wall (!). from the orderly procession of a Venetian Court to the mass-motived scramble of the mob-chorus in the opening scene, every opportunity for movement and activity was taken by david alden’s stage direction.

finally: there’s the music, the orchestra is sure to be the real mvp of this production. the music for this opera is as much in the foreground as the singers on stage, and johannes debus’ orchestra rises far above the occasion. there are times when my eyes were torn away from the action on stage by the energy in debus’ conduction; and others when a subtle trill climbs up from the pit to perfectly underscore the nuances and ambiguities of the action on stage. Otello is going to be a hit, precisely because it takes chances with reinventing this production and investing in singers who even while “marking” their voices, seem to hold nothing back.

Tafelmusik’s The Hunt: Mozart and Haydn continues from friday april 26th to sunday april 28th at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre and on tuesday april 30th at George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.