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Verdi’s tragic Moor landed on the banks of the Detroit River on Saturday, opening the Michigan Opera Theatre’s spring season. Almost all the elements for a great performance were present and almost all of them came together.

Most people are familiar with Shakespeare’s account of the brave but jealous admiral, his devoted and doomed wife and his consummately evil ensign. Verdi and Boito (the librettist) have cut three quarters of the play and streamlined it into a lyric drama of almost unbearable intensity. They jettison the opening Venice scenes of the play, for example, which set much of the tone for the scenes of racial and class conflict to come. Verdi’s Otello is superhuman—a superb sailor, a great fighting admiral and an efficient and fair military governor. He rules a port city that is an outpost of a great civilization at war with an implacable foe. He is also the tender and devoted lover of his wife. Anything too good to be true is just that, of course, and Otello demands an Iago.

Verdi makes great demands on the artists who portray the three main characters. He chose three of the greatest European singing actors of the latter part of the nineteenth century as Otello, Iago and Desdemona and coached them himself. Their music is complex, beautiful, expressive and very demanding. The title role defines the Italian heroic tenor repertory—if one can sing Otello, one is a heroic tenor, if one cannot, he is not.

Iago demands not only thorough vocal mastery of all the “Verdi baritone” roles but also requires finely tuned acting skills and great stamina. Desdemona’s voice must ride over or cut through the grand concertanto finale of Act III, but also caress the tones of the Willow Song and Ave Maria in Act IV.

Vladimir Galouzine is Otello in the A cast at the Michigan Opera Theatre production currently playing. He is a forceful, convincing actor. His vocal technique is excellent, producing a solid column of tone, firm and brilliant not only in the high passages but in the all important middle voice as well. All he lacks is the trumpet-like squillo sound that characterizes the top notes of the finest heroic tenors.

Isabella Sacco plays his wife with the intensely dramatic lyricism, technical agility and musicality that Desdemona demands. Unfortunately her voice is a size too small and gets a bit lost in the concerted pieces. Her pianissimos are ravishing and float effortlessly; her top is secure and her registers blend seamlessly. Sacco is a terrific actress and she gives the words the dramatic thrust they need.

Mark Delevan was Iago -- full of snarling rapacity and rich, menacing middle and low notes. He had some off and on passaggio problems, slipping into an almost falsetto like head voice occasionally but generally had his magnificent voice in control. In addition to the viciousness, he did well in the first act drinking song, with its rhythmic changes, and also his lying account of Cassio’s dream which is full of tonal delicacy. Delevan is a favorite at the New York City Opera and it is easy to see why.

A few notes on costumes—Both Desdemona and Otello had costume changes for each of the four acts—Desdemona had two in Act III. Galouzine looked a bit like a tenor Boris Gudonov in his black robe with black fir trim when presented to the Venetian ambassador but was always effectively wigged and dressed. Sacco showed just the right decolletage in all of her costumes—perhaps a bit too much after her death scene in Act IV—and her costumes complemented her voluptuous figure. Delevan had the same black leather outfit for the entire opera—even at the end of Act IV, when everyone else was awakened from slumber (or killed) and wore some type of nightdress. Either the artistic team thought he looked too good in leather to want to switch or they were making a statement on the extent of his evil, that he was always awake, always plotting and always ready for trouble.

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