To talk about Wednesday night's performance of Verdi's "Otello" at Wolf Trap is to discuss the three Vs: Verdi, Vickers and Levine.
It was an evening in which the over-powering spirit of Verdi's greatest opera surged through the huge audience gathered to hear it. All of the major points of this miracle of the composer's old age were well underscored, and many of the minor ones as well.
That this could happen was due to the elemental force with which Jon Vickers dominated the stage as he moved throuhg the grand part. It is hard to think of any singer or actor in any theater today more convincing or more fully the embodiment of so vast a role.
The audience mistakenly applauded Vickers at his entrance, which obliterated his first victorious outburst, "Esultate!" The audience was, however, notably in tune with other wonders of the opera and held its applause at the end of Act One until the last note on the harp had died away.
Vickers is a titan. Every sound he uttered, every gesture conveyed the man's early ardent love, and then the fatal jealousy upon which Iago's corrosive suggestions built the suspicion that eventually brings about Otello's ruin and Desdemona's death. The magnificent Canadian tenor's voice is a glorious instrument, serving his ends, which are totally those of Verdi, in a manner few have commanded. His return in Act One was terrifying, his tenderness toward his wife as lovely at first as his brutality toward her later was merciless.
Not every generation has been fortunate enough to hear such an Otello. With his far more flexible voice, Vickers recalled the grandeur of Martinelli in some of the most affecting moments in the opera.
James Levine, the Metropolitan's music director, loves Verdi's operas more than any others, an opinion for which he cannot be faulted. In "Otello," he brought the great wrenching surges of power that smash through the first three acts. Both chorus and orchestra, at their peak for Levine, sang and played with beauty and finesse. Though he nearly always found an ideal tempo, Levine tended to rush episodes in the ensemble in Act Three. But he projected the spirit of the work in admirable fashion.
Cornell MacNeil knows Iago thoroughly but there are subtleties, both vocal and dramatic, that he passed over, partly because his voiced is no longer able to provide the power or the finesse for the role. He cannot efface memories of a Tibbett, Warren, or Gobbi, men who were the quintessence of evil onstage.
Gilda Cruz-Romo's Desdemona was a disappointment. While she can produce some lovely soft notes, her voice did not move evenly or easily in louder moments, and her singing lacked any touch of real greatness. The more crucial the phrase, the less she delivered.
The smaller roles were uneven. James Morris was a fine, resonant Lodovico and Robert Goodloe a welcome Montano. But Andrea Velis neither looked nor sounded right as Roderigo, Frank Little's voice made Cassio unpleasantly nasal. Jean Kraft, overbusy in the staging of Act Two, was sufficient as Emilia, and Arthur Thompson a notable herald.
The sets and direction of Franco Zeffirelli had strong and weak points. Act Two is simply a designer thumbing his nose at Verdi, who, however, knew better. There was no suggestion of a garden, no proper place for Cassio to talk with Desdemona. And where was the children's chorus? At home, as they were on Monday night.
Acts One, Three, and Four, however, looked well enough, thouhg far from ideal. But nothing prevented Verdi, Vickers, and Levine from presenting some of opera's greatest music as it deserves to be heard.