North Western Chronicle, 8 October 2001
by Tim Brayton
Otello, Chicago, 22 September 2001
Shakespeare goes to the Opera
Verdi's 'Otello' an operatic masterpiece
In a time such as this, it's easy to understand the common sentiment that being entertained and enjoying oneself are a form of betrayal. But however understandable, this idea is undoubtedly misguided. Art and entertainment are especially important in this situation; they allow us to escape from our temporal state, and free us, if just for a moment, from our anxieties.

To that end, I recently attended the Lyric Opera of Chicago's stellar new production of "Otello," the greatest work of Italy's greatest composer, Giuseppe Verdi, at the height of his powers, featuring two superstars at the height of theirs, Ben Heppner as the tragically jealous Moor, and a radiant Renée Fleming (to be replaced after October 13 by Kallen Esperian) as the faithful Desdemona.

Heppner's performance as the Shakespearean hero, fooled into doubting his wife's fidelity, is nothing less than extraordinary. In a role which is generally thought the most demanding ever written for an Italian tenor, he ably demonstrates why his is considered one of the most accomplished voices of our times. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that without Heppner's finely tuned control and vocal ability, this entire production would be irrelevant. Despite Heppner's unquestionable mastery, however, the star of the show, in terms of sheer artistic majesty, is the divine Renée Fleming, among the most beloved American sopranos in history.

She takes total ownership of every note in such Verdian masterpieces as "The Willow Song," turning one of the most beautiful roles in Verdi's canon into a magnificent personal statement of love, devotion and sacrifice. It is little wonder that Desdemona is quickly becoming Fleming's signature role, or that the diva is recognized as one of the premier interpreters of the Italian repertoire. Best of all is when the two leads share the stage, especially in the first act's celebrated love duet; their respective brilliance moves the music into another plane entirely.

The remainder of the cast is impressive in its own right, if unfortunately overshadowed by the intensity of the two stars. Lucio Gallo, a highly successful baritone in his native Italy, plays the devious Iago with a gleeful malevolence and remarkable skill that helps him to hold his own against the monolithic Heppner. Michelle Wrighte as Emilia, and Jonas Kaufmann as Cassio, are both more than admirable in their essentially thankless roles.

Apart from the cast, Sir Andrew Davis gives a characteristically virtuosic turn, conducting the proceedings with an exuberance and subtlety that pay justice to Verdi's sublime melodies. John Gunter's sets and Mark Henderson's lighting finely evoke the expansive, oppressing heat of the opera's Mediterranean location, and Gunter's costumes, ranging from boldly militaristic to sensuously virginal, add another layer to the already strong visual seduction. The directing and chorus perform magnificently as well, most notably in the opening scene of a storm-wracked coastline, wherein the stage is bare save for fog and flashes of light that work with the singers to create the illusion of a foreboding tempest.

"Verdi always works." For years this has been an invaluable rule of thumb for operatic programming directors, and for the second time in three seasons, Verdi has worked extremely well for the Lyric. This production honors not only the composer, but also the company that has the fortune to be presenting it.

"Otello" plays at the Civic Opera House through October 26.

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