Cher Public

Tragedy in song

Despite a few hiccups, LoftOpera’s Saturday night performance of Rossini’s Otello successfully appealed to the essential kinetic energy of the operatic art form, an aspect that has lain dormant in productions elsewhere in the city this year. 

By making the voice the central concern, the company highlighted opera’s essential selling points: its vast capabilities to engage, entertain, and thrill. With an intimate setting, and a young cast that reveled in a go-for-broke style, this production also breathed new life into an obscure piece, making an excellent argument for its place in the repertory.

Key to this success, Bernard Holcomb’s Otello was a vocally searing presence. Despite a few flubs during some unremarkable passages in the music, his ringing tenor soared with an electric intensity. And beyond his sheer vocal power, his characterization of the Moor of Venice moved flawlessly through registers of aggression and tenderness.

As Desdemona, Cecilia Lopez brought a full-throated sound and a professional polish to her work. The soprano is a formidable actress, and she imbued her character’s outward presence with an organic subtext. Her Desdemona moved beyond the gestures of the reductive victim, developing and expressing a complex subjectivity, complete with unexpected contradictions.

Blake Friedman was an exceptionally diabolical Iago. Underplaying the outright malevolence of the role, his face remained placid, almost serene, throughout the evening. His manner was unctuous; his costume was ill fitting. His Iago haunted the stage, accentuating a queasy, almost sociopathic component to the character’s psyche. But most importantly, his pliant tenor sailed easily through the role’s difficult music.

Another notable performance came from Thor Arbjornsson as Rodrigo, a more substantial role in Rossini’s opera than in Shakespeare’s play. His tenor could be, at times, laser-like in its focus, burning through the orchestra and chorus. However, his middle voice tended to lack the vitality and muscularity of the top.

The supporting roles were equally full-throttled and satisfying, if not always well managed. Of special note, however, was Isaiah Musik-Ayala as the paternal Elmiro. His rich bass-baritone and his imposing physicality highlighted the overarching themes of patriarchy within the plot. And John Ramseyer had a hypnotically lyrical moment as the Gondolier.

The orchestra, conducted by Sean Kelly, supported the singers well enough, while still allowing a bit of wildness to creep in and keep the proceedings spontaneous. Maybe it’s an inherent characteristic of the score, but the evening maintained an unruly, bombastic vitality, like the unnerving momentum of a runway train—exciting and dangerous, unhinged in the best way possible.

The performer’s vocal pyrotechnics brought chutzpah and gravitas to a rather dour production, generally working against the perfunctory direction by John de los Santos. Set pieces were often laboriously constructed, but for reasons that did little to deepen the significance and drama of the text. There was, on the whole, a shortsighted approach to the production’s visual elements. For example, the costumes by Matsy Stinson called to mind the fashionable decadence of a Fellini film, but without much warrant from the text.

It was nice, though, to once again see LoftOpera do what it has come to do best—present opera in an unpretentious mode, providing an alternative to the sometimes stuffy, inaccessible grandeur of Lincoln Center. Beyond the company’s exciting artistic choices, Much of LoftOpera’s significance lies with its understanding of demographics and marketing. Where the Metropolitan Opera can be institutionally cumbersome and aloof, LoftOpera is swift, intimate, and sexy.

Moreover, it was a pleasure to encounter Rossini’s radical interpretation of the source material. While some might argue that such ostentatious coloratura does little to deepen the plot of so tragic a drama, I found Rossini’s composition to be a wonderfully expressive exploration of the tumultuous emotions attending love and jealousy.

It was announced from the stage that the last time Rossini’s Otello was performed in New York City was in 1969. In light of the work’s artistic merit, I found it hard to believe. This long absence alone might be enough to recommend the opera to NYC audiences. However, with such a vigorous and exciting performance of the score, there is more to praise in LoftOpera’s production than the rarity of the work itself.

Photo:  Robert Altman

  • guy pacifica

    I really enjoyed this production — some real balls-to-the-walls performances. It’s still available for viewing at https://livestream.com/thenewschool/LoftOpera-Otello

  • basso.profundo

    What is it with these little companies formed by singers who can’t get hired elsewhere? Isn’t there a similar company now in Baltimore? If you have to hire yourself to sing then something is probably amiss.

    • ducadiposa

      Wow, how does one respond? I would think most people who comment on this site would be well aware of the paucity of opportunities offered to the great number of professional, extremely competent, well-trained singers out there. There just isn’t enough work within the traditional ‘big opera company’ context -- some of the singers who work with the smaller companies often work with the larger ones too…but it’s very difficult to sustain a living with maybe one or two ‘big company’ contracts a season. For this reason, along with the apparent appetite for smaller-scale, intimate performances within the opera-going public, small-scale opera companies like Loft [and many others] have ‘popped up’ to offer these artists opportunity.

      • Musiclover

        Hear hear!

      • PCally

        Cosign everything above. Bassos comment is ridiculous

    • Daniel Swick

      What’s your point? Is it that they are lousy singers who have to pay to get a gig? Or is that there are simply not enough regional companies to support the amount of talent out there?

      • aulus agerius

        I thought all of the singers were fine -- more than fine -- for what they were doing, i.e. singing in a particular style, albeit difficult, that is not performed too much in ‘big houses’ these days, and singing in a very small resonant space with a small orchestra. If any of them with the possible exception of the lead soprano were to appear in a major role on the stages of the Met or SF or Chicago or LA et al. I fear we would be disappointed. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the performance via the webcast -- I did. And I would certainly have attended if I had been within a manageable distance if for no other reason that I’ve never seen the piece performed before. I appreciate all their efforts.

        • ducadiposa

          That may be true but I’d also like to point out that much, much pleasure can be had from hearing performances that aren’t necessarily at an ‘international’ house level. This is something I’ve come to appreciate more and more lately as an opera goer. I’ve often come out of performances put on by smaller companies that I can truly say were the highlight of any given opera season. I think we need to get away from the idea that only Netrebko/Kaufmann/’insert any ‘star’ singer’s name here’ will do. There are many, many artists out there who have lots to offer in terms of both voice and presentation who will never sing at the Met, but still deserve a platform.

    • Musiclover

      Where did you get the idea that Loft Opera was formed by a bunch of singers who can’t get hired? Everyone in the cast was hired.

    • Gualtier Maldè

      Okay, that is not only snide but uninformed. LoftOpera was not formed by singers, nor does anyone in the administration sing in their performances. There is ONE former singer in the triumvirate -- Daniel Ellis-Ferris who has never performed for the company. They hire local singers -- often they are quite accomplished. Also small companies hire singers who are just out of conservatories and lack the resumes or agency representation to get jobs. They provide young performers with stage experience to then build careers in bigger houses. Many opera people have decried the huge difficulty in leaping from the conservatory to the opera house.

      http://www.bkmag.com/2016/09/30/loft-opera-30-under-30-dean-buck-daniel-ellis-ferris-brainna-maury/

    • Uncle Kvetch

      I’ve seen any number of astonishingly good performances from actors in off-off-Broadway showcases, where the only remuneration was exposure. To dismiss those performers on the grounds of their being (supposedly) unable to be “hired elsewhere” would be not just mean-spirited but frankly absurd.

  • “As Desdemona, Cecilia Lopez brought a full-throated sound and a professional polish to her work. The soprano is a formidable actress, and she imbued her character’s outward presence with an organic subtext.”

    What is an “organic subtext”? Does she look like she secretly buys quinoa at Trader Joe’s?

    • Musiclover

      What is your point? Friedman’s Iago was truculent and dangerous, with a heavenly voice. What has that to do with other “iterations” of Iago?

      • My point is that calling Iago “almost sociopathic” is redundant and thus not as deep or insightful as the reviewer seems to think.

        • Armerjacquino

          There’s some reaching going on here. To call a performer’s playing of subtext ‘organic’ makes perfect sense, unless you think the word only refers to food or farming. And just because other productions of something have accentuated a certain character trait, that doesn’t mean it’s ‘redundant’ to mention it.

          I’ll gloss over the nastiness of picking away at a review written for free, but you really have to be determined to hate it to object, inaccurately, to two such small figures of speech.

          • A review written for free doesn’t mean it’s “free” of criticism. I’ve been criticized here for reviews as have other writers.

            • Armerjacquino

              I mean, most of us figured out ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ when we were about nine. But if you want to defend your right to be unpleasant, you go right ahead.

              I note that (literally) passing comment is the only part of my post you addressed.

            • Yeah because I still don’t know what the hell “organic context” means and neither do you. Unless you want to explain to me. And also explain how it’s really insightful to call Iago “almost sociopathic” when Iago by definition is the textbook sociopath.

              But by all means just go back to patting yourself on the back about what an awesome generous righteous kind wonderful person you are.

            • Armerjacquino

              It’s ‘subtext’, pal. Not context. I read it as meaning that the singer managed to express the subtext in a way that arose naturally from the rest of her performance, rather than laying it on with a trowel. But then, I can read.

              Why does saying a performance of Iago came across as almost sociopathic have to be ‘insightful’? If you say a singer conveyed Mimi’s vulnerability is that ‘redundant’ because someoone else noticed it before?

              I’ll ignore the mindreading.

            • Cameron Kelsall

              I’m struggling to understand the argument that casts engaging and/or disagreeing with a review as some kind of moral failing if the reviewer worked gratis. As someone who writes unpaid theater and opera reviews for a different website, I’ve never considered what I write to be above conversation or criticism because I didn’t draw a traditional salary. I accepted the assignments knowing full well they would be published, and thus open to criticism; I imagine the reviewers on this site act under the same pretense. Also, even though reviewers who work for free aren’t paid in the traditional sense, I can speak for myself in saying that I receive thousands of dollars worth of free tickets per year, often very prime seats. That’s not nothing.

            • Armerjacquino

              There are ways and ways of disagreeing, I guess. Of course everything’s up for discussion. But I think there *is* a difference between debating a critic who does it as a job, and saying to someone who has bothered to write a review for the sheer love of it ‘you’re not as deep and insightful as you think’ because you don’t know what subtext is.

            • Cameron Kelsall

              Fair points. Thanks for taking the time to respond. I understand where you’re coming from now.

      • Also, chill out.

  • La Cieca

    “Appealing roughness” — Our Own JJ’s take on Otello:

    http://observer.com/2017/03/opera-review-otello-loftopera/

    • Leontiny

      Exactly. Wonderful. Thank you. A treat to hear and see this work done live with such commitment from all participants. We’ve written to Loft and New School thanking them for their generosity in streaming live and suggesting we’d be happy to pay if they consider doing it again.