Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014

The Houston Grand Opera, as the opening night of its 60th season, mounted Verdi’s “Otello” with Simon O’Neill in the title role, Ailyn Pérez as Desdemona and Marco Vratogna as Otello’s nemesis Iago. I attended the third of five scheduled performances.

[Below: Otello (Simon O’Neill, right) expresses his love for Desdemona (Ailyn Pérez, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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I had previously reported on New Zealand-born O’Neill’s performances in the title role of Lohengrin (Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009) in German and of Mao Tse Tung in English (25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012).

As Otello, O’Neill, comfortable with the high tessitura of the role, brought a healthy sound to this most demanding of Italian tenor parts.

[Below: Simon O’Neill as Otello’ edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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In her role debut as Desdemona, Ailyn Pérez acted affectingly and won over the Houston Grand Opera audience with her creamy lyric soprano, yet another triumph in her exploration of the Verdi soprano repertory (see also Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014.)

(See my interviews at Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 1 and Rising Stars – An Interview with Ailyn Pérez, part 2.]

[Below: Ailyn Pérez as Desdemona; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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 Marco Vratogna, in his Houston Grand Opera debut, was brilliant as Otello’s sinister adversary.

Among the present day’s first rank of Italian dramatic baritones, any Vratogna performance is an experience to be cherished, but his voice and natural style of acting is well-matched for the operas of Verdi.

[See my reports of his Iago (Ovations for ‘Otello’ – San Francisco Opera, November 8, 2009) , his Rigoletto (Vratogna, Shagimuratova, Chacon-Cruz, Luisotti: “Rigoletto” Magnifico – San Francisco Opera, September 8, 2012),  his Ezio (Reveling in Early Verdi: Relyea, Garcia, Vratogna, Palombi in Montanaro’s Uncut “Attila” – Seattle Opera, January 14, 2012) and his Amonasro (Brilliant Cast, Colorful Production, Luisotti’s Masterful Conducting Enliven San Francisco “Aida” – September 19, 2010).

[Below: Marco Vratogna as Iago; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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For some years North American audiences (to the consternation of some European artists) have shown their appreciation for a performance in a villainous role with Old West Theater style booing. No opera character is more villainous than Iago and it’s hard to imagine a more sinister Iago than Vratogna’s.

With long experience with American opera houses, Vratogna graciously bowed and smiled as he received a thunderous booing from the Houston audience, marking a “well done” performance.

[Below: a drunken Cassio (Norman Reinhardt, front, second from left, facing forward) becomes involved in fights with Roderigo (Kevin Ray, left) and Montano (Peixin Chen, right.)

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Iago’s machinations paved the way for the wounding of Montano (sung by Chinese basso Peikin Chen) and the death of Roderigo (sung by American tenor Kevin Ray). Cassio (competently performed by American tenor Norman Reinhardt), despite Iago’s treachery, survives and succeeds Otello as Governor of Cyprus.  American bass-baritone Thomas Richards was the Herald.

Basso Morris Robinson proved to be an authoritative Ludovico. [See my interview at Rising Stars – An Interview with Morris Robinson.]

[Below: Lucovico (Morris Robinson, left) brings the news to Otello (Simon O’Neill, right) that he has been recalled to Venice; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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The production was created by British director John Cox, utilizing the  unit set created by South African designer Johan Engels.  A curved floor and open cubes that represented passageways to and from the stage had a visually surreal effect, suggesting that all was askew.

Cox’ costume designs were ethereal soft colors for the women’s dresses, while the men’s costumes often sported deeper shades of red, brown and black.

[Below: Desdemona (Ailyn Pérez, center, seated) accepts the gifts of the local populace; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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Patrick Summers led a stirring performance. The Houston Grand Opera chorus (whose chorus master is Richard Bado) was a strong presence. Karen Reeves directed a charming children’s chorus.

The lighting designer was Michael James Clark. Italian asssociate director Bruno Ravella supervised the revival.

[Below: the people of Cyprus (the Houston Grand Opera chorus) celebrate the arrival of a new leader; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

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 Recommendation

I recommend the Houston Grand Opera cast enthusiastically, both to the veteran opera-goer and to persons new to opera.