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Russell Thomas headlines bleak ‘Otello’ at WNO

Leah Crocetto, left, as Desdemona, and Russell Thomas as Otello in Verdi’s opera, running through Nov. 16 at WNO.
Leah Crocetto, left, as Desdemona, and Russell Thomas as Otello in Verdi’s opera, running through Nov. 16 at WNO. (Scott Suchman/Washington National Opera/The Kennedy Center)

“Esultate,” exult: It’s the first word out of the mouth of Verdi’s Otello, a passionate tenor with lungs of steel, and a benchmark for one of the hardest roles in the repertory. At the Kennedy Center’s Opera House on Saturday, Washington National Opera’s Russell Thomas burst onto the stage, brandishing a red flag, and sang it in tones of finespun gold.

Thomas has only recently taken on this role, and is judiciously rationing future performances. He wisely marshaled his sound — which is on the light side of the “Otello” spectrum especially in convincingly showing the character’s crescendo into jealousy, his voice shining with the bright ping of fury, and in caressing the quieter moments with dignity. He did himself proud.

If it wasn’t an evening for the ages, that was partly a result of the incomplete mingling of the several elements that comprise an opera. Daniele Callegari was a strong conductor, understanding some of the forward propulsion, verbal sensitivity and passion that circulate like life’s blood through Verdi’s music and keep it, after more than a century, vivid and alive. The singers were reasonably cast, and able to follow him while offering more or less convincing portrayals. David Alden’s production, though, lay on the side of the plate like a piece of gristly meat, tough and gray, casting something of a pall over things.

I am a huge fan and defender of interpretive stage direction when it works, but there is a kind of default area. Alden’s staging, taken over from the English National Opera, the Royal Swedish Opera and the Teatro Real in Madrid, falls into the muddy isn’t-it-all-bleak school of direction with costumes dark and stage bare. The set was shabby and starkly lit so that the characters’ menacing shadows on the wall acted like alter egos. The whole thing took place somewhat arbitrarily in the late 19th or early 20th century, with the soldiers in olive-drab uniforms; Desdemona’s maid Emilia (the ever-reliable Deborah Nansteel) attired like a kind of Mary Poppins; Lodovico (Wei Wu), dwarfed and somewhat muted by an improbable stovepipe hat; and Rodrigo (Alexander McKissick, who, like the two others mentioned, is an alumnus of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program) as an early incarnation of Leisure Suit Larry, topped with a white fedora.

Russell Thomas is tackling Otello, and the field’s stereotypes.

Sometimes a historical updating issues an invitation or challenge to think about how the change in time and place affects the plot. But this production, from the first scene when the chorus lurched across the stage like shifting waves — because of course that’s how you stand on the shore and watch a storm — wasn’t interesting enough to make me want to work out the riddle. The music and story were so much stronger than this telling of it that they were what drew my attention, even dimmed as they were by the dull gauze of this setting. (The chorus extolling Desdemona’s beauty happening offstage? All the romantic moments staged as drably as possible? Whatever.)

The cast all did perfectly well, however, even under these circumstances. Leah Crocetto has a sweet, large voice without a lot of lower heft, making her perfect for Desdemona, one of the lighter Verdi roles, especially when she uncorked some muscle at one climax of her lengthy final-act “Willow Song,” throwing herself into Emilia’s arms in what turned out to be the most moving interaction of the night.

There were also two respectable debuts. George Gagnidze was a solid baritone who powered out the role of Iago, arguably opera’s greatest villain, with a lot of foggy sound that took a while to warm up and focus on individual notes, but that was perfectly operatic and effective. And Zach Borichevsky was appropriately handsome and lighthearted as Cassio, the captain who unwittingly becomes the target of Otello’s jealousy, with an agreeable tenor sound that brought some light into the dark evening.

When Alden’s production opened at the English National Opera in 2014, Otello was white, since darkening a singer’s face with makeup is well known as blackface, a tradition people no longer want to perpetuate. Perhaps for this reason, the production made a point of underlining the character’s isolation in ways that became a little over-obvious when the singer is African American — having the crowd shy away from him, even in the opening scene at what should be the moment of his greatest triumph. But this sense of isolation does explain the character’s reliance on Iago, the only person who tries so hard to get close to him; in this production, they become blood brothers, sealing their bond with an inevitable (in this kind of production) slash of red blood wiped across each other’s faces.

The main interest of the evening was Thomas’s performance, since hearing a new credible Otello is always an event — almost a sporting event, as one waits to hear how he fares at each hurdle the score places for him. Thomas met each hurdle with aplomb, through to the final anguished “Niun mi tema.” If it wasn’t the most heart-rending Otello I’ve heard, it was certainly an admirable one — which in this role is saying quite a lot.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Alden’s “Otello” opened at the Washington National Opera in 2014. It was at the English National Opera. The story has been updated.

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