- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The small, almost unobtrusive Summer Opera Theatre at Catholic University weighed in this past weekend with a stunningly powerful and surprisingly ambitious presentation of Giuseppe Verdi’s dramatic masterpiece “Otello.” Imaginatively reconceived by director Joe Banno and brilliantly sung by a gifted cast, this haunting production is first-rate by almost any standard.

Based, of course, on Shakespeare’s tragic drama “Othello,” Verdi’s opera charts the spectacular rise and precipitous fall of the heroic African general whose only weakness — his insane jealously — destroys him, his brilliant career and the beautiful woman who adores him.

In an unusually appropriate update, Mr. Banno casts the Moor as a U.S. military hero in command of modern-day coalition forces in the Middle East. Military vets surely will quarrel with the portrayal of the rowdy “American” forces in Act I, although the Abu Ghraib mess perhaps makes such loutish behavior seem more plausible to noncombatants and opponents of the current conflict.

Most effective of all is Mr. Banno’s transformation of Act III — in which Otello verbally eviscerates Desdemona in front of their elite and cultured guests — into a full-dress diplomatic dinner party. Washingtonians familiar with such elegant soirees will feel the sting of her humiliation with far greater immediacy than if the scene had been staged in Renaissance Venice as it was conceived originally — although it’s hard to imagine such an event occurring in the current environment of Baghdad’s Green Zone.

Mr. Banno’s vision works surprisingly well if one is willing to suspend disbelief occasionally when it comes to such little details. The only genuinely false note in his approach appears in his brief program notes, in which he tosses a gratuitous though subtle slap at the Bush administration.

Politics and provocative staging aside, any version of “Otello” will rise and fall with the quality of the singing and the believability of the acting. In both, this production is abundantly blessed. Tenor Michael Hayes and soprano Fabiana Bravo are electric as Otello and Desdemona.

Bass-baritone Donald Sherrill performed the villainous Iago role perfectly but frequently fell short of his high notes, particularly during his Act I drinking song, and he found himself in the wrong key elsewhere in the act. Fortunately, he seemed more assured later in the production.

The Summer Opera uses a student orchestra to hold costs down. The musicians sounded awfully good for the most part, although a few more strings would have been nice.

***

WHO: The Summer Opera Theatre

WHAT: Verdi’s “Otello”

WHERE: Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE

WHEN: Tonight at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $40; $110 for the gala on Friday .

INFORMATION: 202/319-4000

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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