Is Iago a nihilist?

I managed to catch the fourth performance of the COC’s current run of Verdi’s Otello last night.  It’s a David Alden production that first aired at ENO and it’s a very dark take on an already dark story.  It’s set maybe circa 1900 and the sets are stark but the lighting is dramatic with lots of contrasts and giant moving shadows.  The overall Zeitgeist seems to be of a society that has seen too much war; a sort of collective PTSD.  This comes over in a number of ways.  The scenes that usually lighten things up a bit; the victory celebrations in Act 1, the children and flowers in Act 2, don’t here.  In fact they are downright creepy.  There’s also a female dancer, used rather as Christopher Alden used Monterone’s daughter in Rigoletto, who clearly doesn’t expect good things from returning soldiers.

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Then there are the characterizations of Otello and, especially, Iago.  Otello is actually pretty conventional.  He’s bubbling with resentments and has anger management problems.  Basically by Act 3 he is obviously nuts (in this production he’s actually lying on the floor twitching) but nobody does anything about it.  It’s a problem for any director and Alden does what most do.  Ignore it and move on.  Iago is more interesting.  He’s quite subdued.  Certainly not the scenery chewing version we sometimes see.  The key, I think, is the final scene where Iago sits and watches the action.  He makes no attempt to slip away and he’s still there when the curtain falls.  Clearly he doesn’t fear the consequences of his actions.  My partner drew my attention to this line from Camus’ L’étranger:

For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.

So, Iago as cold, calculating nihilist.  It makes sense to me and everything that he does and says fits that reading I think.

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There are other Aldenesque touches. Iago and Cassio play darts with an icon of the Virgin Mary for example.  There’s also deft handling of a very large chorus augmented with acrobats and dancers in the crowd scenes.  It’s dramatic and never dull.  All in all, I thought it worked rather well.

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The performances are really good.  Russell Thomas has the vocal heft and the notes of a truly heroic Otello.  He also acts pretty well within the confines of the rather one dimesnsional characterization.  At least he does more than convey “angry” and “barking mad”, which is more than can be said for a lot of interpreters of the role.  Gerald Finley’s Iago is a tour de force.  He’s got the big vocal chops when needed but mostly he’s dangerously conversational; often seeming to make the audience complicit with his schemes with very direct communication and limpid beauty of voice.  It’s utterly compelling.

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Tamara Wilson is convincing enough as Desdemona.  She sings the big numbers beautifully and effectively conveys the sense of confusion and, eventually, resignation that makes the part moving.  Andrew Haji showed terrific vocal chops as Cassio and does a really good drunk.  There’s no longer any sense of a “young singer being given a chance”.  This is the performance of a mature actor/singer.  All the supporting roles were well cast and played with Önay Köse a splendidly imposing Lodovico.

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The chorus, much augmented, was in fine form and generated a truly thrilling sound when required, as in the storm scene.  They also manoeuvred with precision in the limited space.  The orchestra was in fine form.  It was dramatic when needed but there was also some lovely delicate playing, especially from the woodwinds.  Johannes Debus’ tempi and dynamics all seemed well judged.

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This Otello is a fine piece of music theatre and there are four more chances to see it at the Four Seasons Centre between now and May 21st.  If you don’t yet have tickets (and you can afford it) I’d suggest sitting fairly close to the stage.  There’s something about Finley’s intimacy with the audience that I suspect works better from closer.

Photo credits: Michael Cooper

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