Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Moor Than You Know

Some operas require such a formidable combination of dramatic strength, vocal power and physical stamina that, as tempting as they may be, artists often delay learning certain roles until late in their careers. Alfredo Kraus insists that the simple reason why he did not burn his voice out during such a long and prodigious career is because he avoided a steady diet of performances as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme. Similarly, although he loved Verdi's music, Richard Tucker refused to sing the title role of Otello for fear that it would ruin his voice.

When Placido Domingo first tackled Verdi's Otello in 1975 in Hamburg, many opera queens insisted that such artistic foolhardiness would be the ruination of his career. Twelve years later, however, Domingo reigns internationally triumphant as the Moor; both on stage and on screen.

Despite the supposed dearth of heroic tenors to fit the bill, several other artists are currently trying the Moor's sandals on for size. Last year, Giuseppe Giacomini sang his first Otello with the San Diego Opera and, in the fall of 1988, Ermanno Mauro will sing the role in San Francisco. On a recent trip to Seattle, I was able to hear both Bruno Sebastian and George Gray teething on Otello's music while soprano Carol Vaness sang her first Desdemona and baritone Brent Ellis tackled his first Iago. The results were most fascinating.


When Seattle Opera's "International" and "American" series were first conceived, the idea was to present performances in the first series in an opera's original language and performances in the second series in English. Since the advent of Supertitles, the Seattle Opera has become one of the few remaining companies to employ two different sets of lead singers for most of its productions. The company now offers its audiences a "Gold" and "Silver" series, in which two sets of lead artists sing each opera in the original language while Supertitles are projected overhead. Just as it does for the Houston Grand Opera and Greater Miami Opera Association, this set-up allows Seattle Opera to (a) provide itself with cover artists in case any lead singer should fall ill and (b) offer several talented young American singers an invaluable opportunity to try out new roles under highly favorable conditions.

Last month, using John Conklin's sets from the Canadian Opera Company and costumes rented from Malabar in Toronto, Seattle Opera's General Director, Speight Jenkins, produced a highly creditable Otello. Unfortunately, Richard Bradshaw's musical direction made the offstage chorus in Act II sound deafening. Stage director Patrick Bakman ended Act II with Iago showing Desdemona her epileptic husband while saying "Here is your Lion" instead of mocking the helpless Otello as the Moor struggled to overcome a convulsive seizure. Despite these two painfully misguided artistic glitches, the rest of the evening was pretty solid. Keith Olson offered a sweet-sounding Cassio with delectable buns; Shirley Lee Harned a sympathetic Emilia and Stephen Dupont an appealing Lodovico.


Comparisons become inevitable whenever one is confronted by two singers appearing in the same role. In his debut as the evil Iago, Brent Ellis scored a major triumph, demonstrating a firm grasp on both the character and the Verdian style necessary for the role. By contrast, Edward Crafts' Iago was a total washout. This handsome baritone's body language betrayed a total lack of understanding of character; his vocal blandness was completely inappropriate. Dramatically, Crafts was lost at sea (he often seemed to be trying to portray a romantic lead rather than one of the smarmiest villains in all of literature).

As Desdemona, Carol Vaness found a role perfectly suited to the meaty timbre of her voice. Having started out as a mezzo-soprano, Vaness retains a strong chest voice which fits Verdi's music like a glove. Her Desdemona sounded rich, sensual and powerfully feminine. In the Silver series, Adriana Vanelli's voice lacked color although this soprano is a most appealing actress.

The biggest challenge confronted the two men singing the title role. When Bruno Sebastian made his Metropolitan Opera debut last fall as a last-minute replacement for an ailing Radames, I was struck by the clear, stentorian tone of his voice. This artist demonstrates great potential (I understand the Met has signed him to appear as Otello in coming seasons). Sebastian's voice has the power and stamina necessary to sing Verdi's Otello; what he needs to improve most is his acting. Once he builds a viable dramatic interpretation of his own, I feel certain he will become a world-class Otello. Time alone will tell.

A tiny man -- neither elevator pumps nor some costume padding will ever make this man seem larger than he is -- Sebastian's Otello suffers at first from its very smallness of stature. Indeed, there were odd moments when his portrayal reminded me of Dustin Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. I could often picture this Otello as the off-color runt who had spent half his life triumphing against all odds over "the big guys." A curious interpretation of Shakespeare's Moor!

Last year, when I heard George Gray sing Froh in the Seattle Opera's Ring cycle, I was sufficiently impressed by the sound of his voice to want to travel to Seattle to hear his Otello. At present, Gray sounds like a "heldentenorino" whose voice has not yet darkened sufficiently to sing the role. Nor is he fully in command of how he projects sound to the audience. Although this young American artist looks much stronger onstage than Sebastian, his voice really needs time to mature before he can make Otello one of his steady roles. It should be remembered that all of these artists were essentially trying out their roles in this engagement and, when push comes to shove, there's a big difference between wearing your mother's ball gown and wearing your own. In time, these singers may develop very impressive characterizations and have the voices to back up their acting. In the meantime, I admire them for their stamina, musicianship and courage in trying to stretch themselves and broaden their artistic horizons.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on April 23, 1987.

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