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Theatre Reviews David Alden’s Otello combines enthralling characters with excellent singing

Russell Thomas (centre) as Otello in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019.

Michael Cooper/Handout

  • Verdi’s Otello
  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • At the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto

It’s a morbid thought to consider our fascination with psychopaths. We, the “normal people,” are riveted by the idea that there are those among us who simply act at being human. Of course, we love the best actors the most; they’re the ones who study human interactions in order to feign them, as though they carry with them an invisible tool box of acceptable facial expressions to go with any occasion.

Iago, the villainous meddler in Shakespeare’s 1604 Othello, has earned his place among fellow psychopaths. He doesn’t quite have the power or reach of a Heinrich Himmler or a Pol Pot, but he has the same ego; and like a Shakespearean Ted Bundy, Iago is skilled in charm, ingratiation and in convincing himself his behaviour is just fine. What’s most eerie is that the centuries-old Iago still stands up against our contemporary definition of a psychopath; the shallow affect, the constant lies and the utter lack of remorse.

In Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 Otello, we tend to like our Iago with some baritonal snarl. How else are we to know he’s utterly evil? But after hearing Gerald Finley’s villainous side in David Alden’s production of Otello (running through May 21 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre), I’m sold on a different approach.

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Finley seems incapable of uttering an ugly sound. There’s refinement, roundness and beauty in every note – and in Otello, it makes one’s skin crawl. When Finley’s Iago is “on” – rather, not alone – he sings with nobility, humility, even empathy; there’s a terrifying shift, though, the first time Iago is left by himself onstage. Finley’s posture, face and voice seem to lose anything resembling humanity, and we’re left with the sound of his unchecked hatred for Otello. The cherry on top: Finley’s inhuman smile in the opera’s final bars.

Evil as it is, Finley’s vocal beauty is a perfect foil for the honest, fallible sounds of his castmates. With the humanity in their voices, both Otello (Russell Thomas) and Desdemona (Tamara Wilson) unconsciously signal that they are no match for the marblelike beauty in Finley’s Iago. Thomas is an earnest, pitiable Otello; his voice comes with grit and throaty cries, perhaps the sound of a man with imposter syndrome, or at the very least, obvious trust issues. Wilson, a welcome sight at the COC after a nearly six-year absence, sounds in excellent vocal shape; she brings youth to Desdemona, and one can hear the detailed thought given to each note.

With the fated couple, I was enthralled. Thomas’s performance stirs up questions: Are we to gain catharsis from watching Otello unravel? Are we meant to feel wiser, more secure in ourselves than this man who seems to expect betrayal around every corner? And in Wilson’s Desdemona, I found a woman who retains power in her own, limited way; there’s bile in her sound when she refutes accusations of her infidelity, and Wilson sings her stunning, foreshadowing Ave Maria as though to say, if none of the men in my life will listen to me, perhaps God will.

David Alden’s production makes hard work of discerning what’s his own storytelling, and what’s Verdi’s. I should have expected onstage mysteries from this director: Why is there a nameless woman dancing like a lunatic? Why do the soldiers move with flailing twitches when they drink? Why do the children throw flowers with those empty looks on their faces? And there’s the habit Alden shares with his brother – fellow director Christopher Alden – where attempts at normal human interactions are thwarted by awkward, unnatural physicality.

Despite that short list of strange, distracting things onstage that don’t contribute to this story, Alden mercifully leaves intact the scenes that really matter; Iago’s Credo, Desdemona’s prayer scene, the tense duets – these moments are zoomed-in, uncluttered interactions that satisfy the drama-hungry, and those craving excellent singing.

Otello runs until May 21 (coc.ca).

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