The critic Harold Bloom argues in his book on Shakespeare, "The Invention of the Human," that were the evil Iago to try to stir up jealousy in Hamlet as he does with Othello, it wouldn't work. Hamlet, a good deal smarter than Othello, "would discern Iago for what he was and then would drive him to suicide by lightning parody and mockery" in a speech or two, says Bloom.
Neither quick wit nor careful deliberation comes naturally to Othello — Otello in Verdi's great operatic version of the play. He's a soldier, the mighty Lion of Venice, a man who acts first and then maybe thinks it through later. He's easily manipulated. He's a dim bulb, the kind who might invade the wrong country from time to time — or murder his wife under false pretenses.
The American tenor Carl Tanner captured many of these complications in his impressive portrayal of Otello on the stage of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis Saturday night in the finale of the 36th annual edition of the Minnesota Orchestra's Sommerfest.
Tanner's body language suggested solidity and force, and yet his flare-ups — his suspicions — were capricious and volcanic. This is a man at war with himself. In a telling gesture in Act 3, he raised his hand to strike Desdemona, then pulled back in horror, shuddering at what he might have done. Vocally, the role needs darker colors in certain passages, but Tanner displayed from start to finish the stamina, range and power that the part demands. This wasn't perhaps an Otello for the ages, but Tanner achieved a measure of noble pathos in the final scene when in desperation and despair he realizes he's been tricked — his wife was innocent.
Playing Desdemona, Barbara Shirvis projected the heroine's innocence with fierce honesty and managed to make her devotion to her husband both persuasive and poignant. Her tender, delicate "Willow Song," with its exquisite top notes, was one of the evening's highlights. There were occasional touches of the old-style melodrama villains in baritone Stephen Powell's Iago — not enough real malevolence — but his resonantly sung "Credo" made a strong impression, as did Victoria Vargas' sympathetic Emilia.
Dispensing with the current fad for semi-staging of operas, this production reverted to the old-fashioned concert presentation, which is to say hardly any staging at all, the action played in the space downstage of the orchestra. Generic pictures of castles and bedrooms were projected onto the back wall.
Conductor Andrew Litton's pacing of the first-act love duet was fast and stiff, but the big moments in the score rang out with conviction and excitement, and the orchestra, especially the brasses, played beautifully. This, after all, is why we have concert versions. The Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Boychoir provided rich, well-balanced choral sound.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.