Review: Rossini’s ‘Otello’ In Literally an ‘Underground’ Production by LoftOpera
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, March 21, 2017
LoftOpera, a young, edgy enterprise based in Brooklyn, started up a few years back by asking itself, “What kind of show do we actually want to see?” The answer, they realized, was obvious: ”We want to see music in odd places, underground venues, lofts and warehouses. We want to see a show with a beer in our hand, sitting or standing next to a friend or a date.”
Being no longer young, myself, and having had a good deal of edge worn off me by age and experience, it would never have occurred to me to want to see an opera in a warehouse, let alone in an underground venue—although the prospect of doing so with a beer in my hand still has a certain raffish appeal—but having seen Loft’s new production of Rossini’s Otello, which opened at the LightSpace Studios in Bushwick this past Thursday, I’m convinced.
It’s not so much the venue itself as the technical simplicity and physical limitations that the venue imposes. It’s like street-theatre: about all you can do is to stick up a platform and crowd as many people around it as you as you can, making sure that they can still hear you and follow the action; if you use scenery, you have to shift it in plain sight, and you can’t hide the actors. This has real advantages, if you do it right: it’s immediate, it’s almost guaranteed to be exciting, and the first thing you know the audience is taking part in the story. There are risks, too: the audience is right on top of every error and hesitation, so your performers have to be on it and in it at every moment, and you have to be content to forgo all your intellectual frills and furbelows, and tell the story as simply and vividly as you can.
If their Otello is any example, Loft gets it. With few exceptions, the staging was simplicity itself, and the singers went at it hammer and tongs, in late-Fifties getups that would have fit right in with the crowd. The audience—a mix of neighborhood hipsters and middle-aged L-train parachutists like me—was rapt throughout, even though it was a long show and the supertitles skipped over a good deal of the Italian text. There was a defining moment at the beginning of Act Two, when a testy confrontation between Desdemona and Rodrigo erupted in the middle of the audience—near the bar, actually—and audience-members caught in the spotlight instinctively looked away but kept peeking back, just as you do when some tense, would-be-private conversation on your subway-car gets embarrassingly loud and threatens to go scarily out of control.
The young singers were all good at handling Rossini’s demanding florid style, and at turning it to organic dramatic use. In the opening scene, Bernard Holcomb did a nice bit with Otello’s fioriture, folding them into a bit of backslapping meant to disguise his anxiety as a foreigner unsure of his welcome. Thor Arbjornsson’s Rodrigo had a kind of seedy frat-boy entitlement to him, and his high-note pissing-match with Otello had all the testosterone-crazed aggression that their subsequent knife-fight lacked. (The latter was one of the few serious missteps in the production: if you’re going to stage a knife-fight at such close quarters, it better look real.) But the performances of the evening were Cecilia López’s fierce Desdemona—in character every minute, and beautifully sung, apart from a couple of high notes that didn’t quite get there—and John Ramseyer’s gondolier, whose exquisite little barcarolle set up the final cataclysm with exactly the right note of innocent irony.
Sean Kelly led a strong performance, and kept balances under reasonable control—not the easiest thing in the world, in a room full of industrial concrete. The chorus was excellent.
Otello by Gioachino Rossini, presented by LoftOpera at The LightSpace Studios, 1115 Flushing Avenue, Brooklyn, on March 16, 18, 20, 23, 25, and 27, 2017. Directed by John de los Santos; conducted by Sean Kelly; set design by John de los Santos; lighting design by Joel Fitzpatrick; costume design by Matsy Stinson. Cast: Bernard Holcomb (Otello); Cecilia López (Desdemona); Thor Arbjornsson (Rodrigo); Blake Friedman (Iago); Isaiah Musik-Alaya (Elmiro); Toby Newman (Emilia); John Ramseyer (Lucio/Gondolier); Lucas Levy (Doge).
Cover: Cecilia López and Bernard Holcomb in ‘Otello;’ photo: Robert Altman