ASO: Robert Spano with Russell Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Williams, and Nmon Ford

I was excited when I saw that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was doing a semi-staged production of Verdi’s “Otello” this season. It’s among my favorite operas as much because of the wonderful orchestration as for anything sung by the soloists. The orchestra really tells the story almost as well as the libretto such that I think that you could strip the singing from it and still have the makings for a solid ballet. I suspected that a semi-staging would let me focus more on the musicality of the work than the dramatic aspects without reducing the emotional impact of the work on me. I’m happy to report, I was correct: this was a wonderful way to hear the opera.

Spano did an excellent job with the orchestra. It was a perfect complement to the singing without drowning anything out nor allowing the orchestra to fade into the background. And the singers were absolutely wonderful. Russell Thomas was a strong Otello and I loved Mary Elizabeth Williams’ Desdemona: her voice is not quite as sweet as some sopranos, but it has this wonderful body to it that gives it a kind of strong, confident character that makes it an absolute pleasure to hear. Nmon Ford, though, stole the show for me. Just as in the original play, Iago is the most interesting character in the story and Ford’s baritone brought the slimy weasel to life so wonderfully.

This stood out somewhat from other semi-staged operas that I’ve seen the ASO do in past seasons in that, aside from entrances and exists and a few shifting of seats, there wasn’t any blocking. The vocalists also didn’t really pantomime anything. Not that this detracted from my enjoyment at all, but it was noteworthy. Also of note, Spano, for some reason, had the chorus leave between the third and final acts, which was awkward and took some time. Although they aren’t in the fourth act, I think that the disruption was a bit much. If they insist on doing this in the future, they should block the exit better: it was a little chaotic and I think a little more order would have resulted in a smoother and more speedy exit. Beyond that, though, I’m absolutely delighted to have been able to hear this production this evening.

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