‘Otello’ is amateur but passionate opera

June 13, 2012

A minor league baseball game is an entirely different experience than sitting in the Orioles’ or Nationals’ stadiums. You can smell the (real) grass, feel the thud of the ball in leather, actually hear the umpires’ calls, and see the players up-close in their human strivings. You also see lots of walks, errors and missed cutoffs. Games can get out of hand quickly.

In community opera theater, the experience is analogous. The Riverbend Opera Company, a Fairfax-based “singers’ collaborative” formed in 2009, is in the middle of a scrappy four-
per­for­mance run of Verdi’s major-league masterpiece “Otello.” Tuesday’s show was at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Southwest Washington. One certainly couldn’t object to the ticket price (free), nor could any audience experience an opera on much closer terms, with the cast mingling in the lobby before and after, and the action only a few feet from the front row, with the singers brushing by us as they made their way up the center aisle.

In this “semi-staged” production, the bare church was at one light setting throughout, the conductor helped move the few props between acts as needed, the choir members brought their scores onstage with them, the “orchestra” consisted of a piano and a synthesizer, and the music often competed with the sounds of traffic and aircraft. The opera was trimmed in several places, and overall musical values were, it must be said, amateur. But the principals — mostly students and rising professionals — gave impassioned performances that largely compensated.

Nontraditional casting is so common now as to be a nullity; but with the ethnicity of the two principal males reversed, as here, Iago’s racial slurs about Otello were nonetheless jarring. Still, Bryan Jackson as Iago offered the most convincing acting of the evening. His pitch can waver when singing loudly, and he lacks the high A called for in the “Drinking Song,” but the “Credo” was delivered with power and drama. Melissa Chavez offered the evening’s finest singing; the part of Desdemona was perfect for her voice, and she drew out long, musical phrases. She was perhaps even more impressive in the ensemble scenes than her two big solos in Act IV, tempering some of the bellowing going on around her with coolly exemplary production.

The title role is one of the most difficult in the entire tenor repertoire, and Kevin Courtemanche battled it to a draw. While “Exultate” was labored, the “Love Duet” came off well, and his descent into madness in Act III was precisely drawn. He worked hard and acquitted himself honorably. In a smaller role, Roxanna Maisel as Emilia brought admirably clean vocalism to the part but really needs more than one facial expression for the role.


Clockwise from top left, Bryan Jackson (Iago), Kevin Courtemanche (Otello), Linda Kiemel (Desdemona June 9/17), Melissa Chávez (Desdemona June 12/15). (David Chávez)

Upcoming performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday at Rock Spring Congregational Church in Arlington and 4 p.m. Sunday at Providence Presbyterian Church in Fairfax.

Battey is a freelance writer.

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