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Lyric’s ‘Otello’ weathers drab staging, change of Iagos

Falk Struckmann (right with Johan Botha) left Iago role after Act 1. | Dan Rest/Lyric OperChicago

Falk Struckmann (right, with Johan Botha) left the Iago role after Act 1. | Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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When: Through Nov. 2

Where: Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker

Tickets : $34-$244

Info: (312) 332-2244;

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

Transforming Shakespeare’s all-encompassing plays into operas presents myriad challenges, but among Giuseppe Verdi’s many notable accomplishments are two of the most successful such adaptations. As part of the worldwide celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Italian composer’s birth, Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 2013-14 season Saturday evening with a revival of its 2001-02 production of “Otello.”

This adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello” was to have featured two of the three singers who performed the lead roles in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 take on this murderous tale of jealousy and deceit. (The third, soprano Renée Fleming, Lyric Opera’s creative consultant, was in the audience.) But shortly after the conclusion of Act 1, general director Anthony Freud stepped in front of the curtain to announce that bass-baritone Falk Struckmann would not return as Iago because of severe allergies. (He is set to reprise the role in subsequent performances.)

Gamely stepping in for him was the role’s understudy, baritone Todd Thomas, who made his Lyric Opera debut last season as Monterone in “Rigoletto.” His portrayal of the scheming antagonist could have been more nuanced, and his voice sounded slightly stressed at times, but Thomas made the switch in singers seem nearly seamless and, over all, he pulled off this last-minute performance with admirable aplomb.

Setting aside the unforeseen loss of one the production’s key cast members, it was still hard to get excited by Saturday’s performance, which seemed tentative at times and lacked the kind of dramatic immediacy for which Verdi’s penultimate opera is known.

Part of the fault lies with the conventional, less-than-inspired staging, which didn’t do enough to plumb the depths of these compelling, multilayered characters. This version was originally conceived by renowned director Peter Hall and revived here by Lyric first-timer Ashley Dean, and it was hard not to wonder if something hadn’t been lost in translation.

The production is set in the 19th century, with sets and costumes by John Gunter. Almost all the action takes place in a three-story, wood-framed military headquarters or officers’ quarters with a cavernous atrium and louvered windows onto the unseen ocean beyond.

Tenor Johan Botha, who has sung Otello with many major companies, certainly has the vocal chops to handle this daunting role and the commanding presence expected of a victorious general. But his portrayal conveyed too little of the character’s rich complexity, and the whole performance seemed a bit mannered.

It took a while for soprano Ana María Martinez to catch spark in her debut as Desdemona. But her poignant, deeply felt take on the farewell aria in Act 4, which showed off the subtly expressive spectrum of her elegant voice, was arguably the emotional high point of the evening.

Conductor Bertrand de Billy drew some enlivened playing from the pit orchestra at times, but he could have done more to bolster the singers and accentuate the opera’s heightening tension.

“Otello” opened just a week after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra unveiled its gripping concert version of Verdi’s earlier Shakespearean adaptation, “Macbeth,” and it was impossible to escape the nagging feeling that this production didn’t quite measure up.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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