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'Otello' at the Castleton Festival

In a formidable stride in its fifth season in the picturesque fields of Rappahannock County, Virginia, the Castleton Festival’s production of Verdi’s tragic Otello was almost a triumph. Conducted by Castleton founder Lorin Maazel in the Festival Theater, which except for the pit and stage is something of a barn-like tent structure, grand opera was offered in a chamber setting.

Maazel’s show-stopping orchestra of young musicians set the bar for musical precision and expressive agility; however, some of the lead singers did not exploit the intimacy of venue in this Glyndebourne production by Sir Peter Hall. The Iago of baritone Javier Arrey channeled evil through sinister facial expressions and body language furthered by his clear, resonant singing in Shakespearean soliloquys like the Creed aria. Similarly, bass-baritone Davone Tines' quick acting as Lodovico -- particularly with his eyes -- in combination with an immediacy in singing compelled one's focus and trust. Tenor Kirk Dougherty's gentle singing as Cassio reinforced his aloofness while being framed by Iago as Desdemona’s gallant adulterous lover. The chorus of young singers in summer residence sang with exceptional energy, while the two-story staging (directed by Lynne Hockney) helped create that grand opera feel from a cleverly simple set (designed by John Gunter).

Other Articles:

Joan Reinthaler, Castleton Festival’s ‘La Voix Humaine’ and ‘Otello’ (Washington Post, June 21)

Tim Smith, Castleton Festival delivers strong lineup of opera, theater (Baltimore Sun, July 17)

Roger Piantadosi, The Castleton Festival: right turn, no red (Rappahannock News, July 11)
Alternatively, the opera’s leads, Otello (tenor Frank Porretta, stepping in for an indisposed Rafael Rojas for three performances) and Desdemona (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) seemed distant musically and visually, with quite broad acting. This cool, steady approach might be better suited for halls or giant arenas that seat thousands, rather than the hundreds such as at Castleton. Porretta seemed more focused on singing than fully embodying his self-destruction contrived by Iago. Desdemona, though vocally more impressive, especially in the Ave Maria, did not supersede Otello’s befuddled temperament, leaving one with the feeling that this production, albeit close, did not reach its potential. Without the listener being totally convinced artistically by the main characters, the concluding murder of Desdemona by pillow suffocation was bizarrely as banal as it was repugnant.

This production continues through July 28, at the Castleton Festival, in Rappahannock County, Virginia.

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