, October 2001
By Heidi Waleson
Otello, Chicago, 22 September 2001
Lyric Opera of Chicago Has Two Winners
Renée Fleming takes top honors in Otello (while a lively supporting cast animates Street Scene.)
Verdi: Otello

Ben Heppner (tenor) - Otello
Renée Fleming (soprano) - Desdemona
Lucio Gallo (baritone) - Iago
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) - Cassio

Orchestra and Chorus of the Lyric Opera of Chicago
Andrew Davis (conductor)
Peter Hall (director)

Saturday 13 October 2001
Civic Opera House, Chicago
Produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago

Renée Fleming's incandescent Desdemona at Lyric Opera of Chicago was an extraordinary event — the kind of performance, joining heart-stopping singing with pinpoint acting — that makes you forget that you're in the theater and it's just make-believe. In the first three acts, Ms. Fleming's appealingly feisty characterization created a fascinating tension — how long would it take this bright, open woman, who actually laughed playfully during the Act One love duet, to realize that her confident happiness has been destroyed? We found out in a shattering Act Four. "Salce, salce," exquisitely sung, an expression of the purest, most heartbroken pain, was followed by an even more poignant "Ave Maria," a struggle through prayer that seemed finally to bring her an exhausted peace. Peter Hall's directing was just as natural and real as the singing, and when Ms. Fleming hugged the statue of the Virgin to her heart like a beloved doll, she seemed like a child who knows she has lost everything.

Ben Heppner, singing his first staged Otello in Chicago, is still finding his way with this pinnacle of the dramatic tenor repertoire. He took a cautious, lyrical approach to the role, concentrating on beautiful sound rather than excited abandon. It was persuasive, especially when he let the savagery get the upper hand in his first confrontation with Desdemona in Act Three, but Otello does need to rage a little more. Lucio Gallo was a forceful, oily Iago and Jonas Kaufmann a fine Cassio; Andrew Davis led the eloquently paced performance. John Gunter's sets and costumes updated the action to the early 19th century and put the first three acts in a claustrophobic, multi-galleried interior that suggested a temporary (wood, not stone) garrison in a hot place. One got tired of looking at it, and Desdemona's bedroom, for which the whole set was draped tent-like in white, was a visual relief.


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