Giuseppe Verdi's "Otello" is a serious undertaking for any opera company, particularly one as small and financially challenged as the Summer Opera Theatre, which is presenting it this week at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre. Verdi's most finely wrought work, it is based on the most operatically structured of Shakespeare's tragedies and demands a rare level of vocal power, precise psychological characterization and dramatic intensity.

The Summer Opera production fills these requirements so spectacularly that one begins to fantasize about how the company might do a "Ring" cycle.

The setting is moved from Renaissance Venice to modern Iraq. This preserves the sense of tension and the military ambiance that many productions submerge in domestic detail. "Otello" is still a drama of jealousy, blind hatred, slow psychological poisoning and curiously muted violence, ending in Otello's strangling of Desdemona. But these emotions and events are shown in a context more fully defined than usual. Director Joe Banno says it well in a brief program note: "With both the prowess and the shame of military occupation filling our newspapers and the Arab world garnering an unprecedented degree of international attention, 'Otello's' characters and setting don't seem all that remote."

Motifs in this production, as spelled out by Banno, are "that political ambition can wreak irreversible damage, that belief in political or military invincibility is a dangerous illusion, that self-loathing eventually turns outward, that violence begets violence and that self-proclaimed truth-tellers are sometimes the most virulent liars." All this and a lot of great music, too.

The music is in excellent hands, with H. Teri Murai conducting an excellent chorus, a well-rehearsed student orchestra and an expertly chosen and well-directed cast headed by Michael Hayes (Otello), Fabiana Bravo (Desdemona) and Donald Sherrill (Iago). Hayes has the heroic-size voice needed for this role; he controls it effectively, and his acting conveys precisely the progressive deterioration of the hero as his mind becomes clouded with suspicion of the wife he loves (in Shakespeare's words) "not wisely but too well."

Bravo matches the heroic dimensions of Hayes's voice and adds exquisitely shaped, floating high notes and a touching air of vulnerability. Their work together is electrifying, particularly in the final scene and in the tense discussion at the beginning of Act 3. Sherrill is the embodiment of pure, malevolent evil, singing well throughout, with particular power in his "Credo."

Issachah Savage (Cassio), Peter Burroughs (Roderigo) and Yvette Smith (Emilia) perform impressively in supporting roles.

There will be repeat performances tomorrow and Friday nights and Sunday afternoon.

Michael Hayes, holding the gun, brings a heroic voice to the title character. Issachah Savage, left, is Cassio, and Kwang-Kyu Lee plays Montano. Right, Hayes and Fabiana Bravo, who plays Desdemona, are electrifying together.