Nashville Opera presents Verdi’s Otello

19 Apr

With the recent uproar hovering over San Diego Opera’s unexpected closing and its subsequent backlash, the unquenchable thirst to support the efforts of regional companies which soldier on despite overwhelming odds took over your friends at newoutpost. Our attention was drawn towards Nashville Opera, a regional outfit which last year earned a Grammy Award through the strength of its premiere recording of Robert Aldridge’s opera Elmer Gantry. We admit it a veritable shame to have ignored the neighboring company for as long as we have, but last week we sought to correct the error of our ways by covering the company’s production of Verdi’s Otello.

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Malcolm MacKenzie (Iago) and Clifton Forbis (Otello). Photo by Reed Hummell/Nashville Opera © 2014

These performances of Otello were staged at the James K. Polk theatre, a thousand-seat venue which served as an unusually intimate setting for Verdi’s teutonic masterpiece to unravel. But while the sonic elements of the opera were amplified, so were the faults. This Otello did not rise above by the strengths of its production values, and the sets coming from the Arizona Opera company initially struck the eyes as woefully amateurish. It is to the credit of Stage Director John Hoomes (who also doubles as General Artistic Director) and his lighting designer Barry Steel that this initial negative impression gave way to a quiet and simple dignity as the opera ran its course. The state of the company’s orchestral and choral forces was similarly uneven. Maestro Christopher Larkin did an admirable job at fulfilling the proceedings in more than a perfunctory fashion, but his band lacks significant polish, and the effort to accomplish the score’s complications left much of its musical verve out of it. The orchestral segment that introduces the third act, for instance, was particularly bland. When the members of the Nashville Opera Ensemble joined their efforts, the musical synergy of big ensemble pieces, such as the opera’s huge opening scene or the famous “Fuoco di gioia,” veered wayward and seemed held together by a deep breath. While these rough patches would seriously disqualify the efforts of more prestigious houses, they surprisingly brought to mind the sort of performances audiences enjoyed in opera houses of provincial Italy in the 1970s, where hectic musical practices were easily overlooked for the presence of singers with real personality and vocal swagger. Indeed, the balance of Nashville Opera’s Otello tipped heavily towards the strength of its leading principals, which happily more than made up for some of the companies endearing limitations.

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Clifton Forbis (Otello). Photo by Reed Hummell/Nashville Opera © 2014

The lineup’s most prominent member, the heroic tenor Clifton Forbis, is a high profile singer of international caliber. He is no stranger to Verdi’s Otello, having essayed the part in several companies of high repute, even serving as the vehicle for his debut at Italy’s Teatro alla Scala. Now, away from the vigilant eyes of New York, Milan and Vienna, it would seem that he came to Nashville to push the envelope of an already fine impersonation. As the tortured, jealous ridden and battle weary Otello, he excelled, mostly by way of an instrument that has suffered the battle scars to be expected from a resume of such heavy assignments. The higher notes in his scale have retained their heroic qualities, their pencil sharp focus and overwhelming dimension. In contrast, the lower registers have lost considerable color and support, and made a shakier contribution to a vocal portrayal that ultimately ranked uneven. The role’s immediate and cruel test, the famous “Esultate,” did not shake the earth as the tenor dove down into the lower tessitura. Rather, he needed to approach the high F to let the voice comfortably fly in its full splendor. The higher lying outcry of “Abbasso le spade” was ear splitting, and for the act’s closing duet, Mr. Forbis’ lachrymose tones shaped the long lines of his love duet with Desdemona with somewhat unsteady footing and nervous ardor. An intelligent artist, he colored the second request for a kiss into a desperate command, paving the way for the great suffering with which he would dominate throughout the remainder of the opera.

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Malcolm MacKenzie (Iago) and Clifton Forbis (Otello). Photo by Reed Hummell/Nashville Opera © 2014

For the second act, inspired by Iago’s relentless taunting, the tenor gave full reign to the fury of his upper tones. The tremolous waves of his “Ora e per sempre, addio” struck as the sad lament of a great man who has forever lost his peace, and the act’s closing duet, “Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro” rattled the walls. He reserved his most intense singing for the remaining acts, at times delving into territory that would be frowned upon by the guardians of good musical taste. Following his terrifying accusation of Desdemona, he opened the floodgates in the soliloquy “Dio mi potevi”. Here we were faced with the wasted tenor bemoaning his fate, pushing the voice to its breaking point as his scintillating squillo expressed the heart of this hapless man. For a flash, we were transported to an era where opera was not reduced to luring tweeting teenagers into the theater with shirtless baritones and clever gimmicks. For once, we were back to a place where all that mattered was the voice, and essentially, we had “opera” back.

While Mr. Forbis took the opportunity to raise a familiar assignment to greater heights, for soprano Mary Dunleavy, making her debut with the Nashville Opera company in these performances, this assumption of Verdi’s Desdemona was a first. She is smart to introduce her voice to the heavier Italian repertoire through what is arguably one of Verdi’s most forgiving spinto parts. Her essentially lyric soprano is large, particularly in the upper tessitura where it delights with unforced gleam, down to a securely projected middle register. The tone is silvery and a touch cool in its beauty. The lower regions of this instrument were lesser features, and though her chest tones were adequately stated, they hardly impressed as a highlight. Instead, a naturally girlish tone, best heard in the recitative sections, exposed the delightful charm she risks compromising through the assumption of these larger Italian spinto roles. As noted in our recent encounter with her Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust ( she is a fine actress, and made much of her character’s troubled journey. The momentary desperate reflection of her unknown fault, giving way to the immediate renunciation of guilt in the third act was memorable, and her tender rendition of Desdemona’s “Ave Maria” touched the heart. Along the way there were valid misgivings. The voice lacks an Italianate timbre, leaving a considerable aural impact of this most Italian of scores ill-fulfilled. This unavoidable demerit will be partially overlooked as she gains a better feel for the score’s dramatic phrasing and allows her signing to wrap itself further into the Italian text.

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Mary Dunleavy (Desdemona). Photo by Reed Hummell/Nashville Opera © 2014

These limitations were tested in the pages of the third act duet, “Dio ti giocondi, o sposo”, where the kittenish lower warbles impressed less and less in moments of greater stress. One fears, for instance, for her participation in the third act’s massive concertato within the confines of a larger hall. Notwistanding, as heard inside the James K. Polk auditorium, they shone a bright spotlight to the part’s fragile appeal, and further incited the audience inclination to protect her.

Standing somewhere in the middle of the spectrum was the Iago of Malcolm MacKenzie, who exhibited a healthy, well-placed baritone with an easy top and solid core. His tone, however, lacked a certain exuberance to qualify it such great assignment, and his singing did not generate the necessary tension to convince by way of the ear alone. For this, we go to his stage business, which was appropriately slimey. There is a dash of Tim Curry in his eyes, and he has done well to capitalize in this passive resemblance. He fulfilled his assignment with apparent ease and reserve of vocal resources, but if Otello’s voice is intended to shake the earth, Iago’s must slither like a worm. Here, Mr. MacKenzie’s forward placement and open singing generally fell short. Throughout the evening, his voice seldom changed in color and tone to expose the villain’s terrifying agenda, and while his acting convinced, the opera singer gig requires the singing to do the heavy lifting. To be fair, he did an admirable job at compiling the disparate pieces and making a strong case for the totality of his interpretation. His final moment on stage (he was taken out by a bullet to the head) was surprisingly satisfying.

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Malcolm MacKenzie (Iago) and Zac Engle (Roderigo). Photo by Reed Hummell/Nashville Opera © 2014

The comprimario personnel faired less well, and served well as set up to the greater voices in their midst. The important role of Cassio was entrusted to young and handsome tenor Jason Slayden, a singer in great demand in the regional opera circuit, and one we hope would do well to improve. This young artist of obvious talent has yet to come to terms with a technical method to serve his art form. We are likely to encounter him again and again, and so we hope that he will stop relying on that body and get his instrument in check. The world does not need more Vittorio Grigolos. As Emilia, mezzo-soprano Amy Oraftik wasted several opportunities to create a memorable vocal impression. She is the last female voice to be heard in the opera and she unveils Iago’s treachery – so much more could have happened here. A brighter mention goes to tenor Zac Engle, who did well in the short but effective role of Roderigo.

With Verdi’s Otello, Nashville Opera closed its curtain on its current season. The announced 2014-15 season will include Giacomo Puccini’s timeless “La Boheme,” Carly Simon’s “Romulus Hunt,” Daniel Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance”. For more information, please visit the company’s website at

-Daniel Vasquez

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Posted by on April 19, 2014 in Arts, Opera


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