It was the opera that reversed expectations, the resurrection of a lifelong passion, a new imagining. And a timeless close.

Lured out of more than a decade of self-imposed retirement, Giuseppe Verdi, aging colossus of Italian grand opera, found himself allied, not entirely to his surprise, with a much younger collaborator in the person of rabble-rousing librettist Arrigo Boito. Introduced by friend and proto super agent Giulio Ricordi, the bond between seasoned maestro and brilliant story-telling junior partner took root almost immediately, nurtured by Boito’s draft copy of his searing Shakespeare-derived tragedy, Otello. The appeal to Verdi’s pronounced stage instincts, coupled with his abiding attachment to England’s pre-eminent Renaissance playwright, proved singularly irresistible as Ricordi had slyly surmised. Shakespeare, the wily music publisher well knew, had long been the composer’s theatrical idol since student days at the Milan Conservatory. Macbeth, an early work from 1847, had caused a sensation when first presented in Florence and Paris. Plans to set King Lear had proved less fruitful though hope had never entirely dimmed in Verdi’s mind. Likewise dreams for The Tempest. Falstaff, Boito’s altogether original Shakespearean pastiche, an immediate follow-up to Otello, would bring down the curtain on Verdi’s towering 50-year old career. The partnership was brief, a matter of only a few years, but enormously touching and profoundly respectful.

“Only you can compose Otello, Boito wrote in a letter to Verdi shortly after their first meeting. “It is predestined for you.”

Summoning the twin spirits of greatness, director David Alden pays gripping homage to Otello’s creators in a newly mounted Canadian Opera Company co-production, transforming the tense four-act thriller from ominous Elizabethan classic to chilling pre World War I-inspired expressionist trauma, a deep dark dive into the heart of perversity. Sinister, relentless this is an Otello that grips the imagination and never releases its savage hold.

The purely narrative construct in Otello is sharply defined by its authors, Shakespeare’s taut story arc faithfully traced.  Numerous speeches, though frequently shuffled in order of appearance, are essentially transposed verbatim. But there are limits to the precise mirroring of earlier dramatic expression in evidence here.

The character of Iago is a particularly prominent target for revision. By slaying his lustful confederate, Roderigo, and later murdering wife Emilia, literature’s penultimate villain, as portrayed by Shakespeare, is as much volatile man of action as demonic puppet master. In Boito and Verdi’s telling of the twisted tale of the ill-fated tragic hero goaded into senseless murder, deviant psychology almost wholly displaces raging physicality. Iago is a waking nightmare, his behaviour forever constrained by an obsession so ominous, so all-consuming even he struggles to fathom its origins. Precious few shafts of sunlight penetrate the primal gloom of set designer’s Jon Morrell’s crumbling Cypriot citadel. The visual metaphor is very much to the point. Like the leather-coated imperialists and their top-hatted enablers who occupy the island in Alden’s iteration, Iago compulsively feeds on the exploited and the oppressed.

Otello himself undergoes something of a similar stage transformation in both historical and immediate terms. Arriving in a raging storm at the far flung Mediterranean outpost, Shakespeare vividly identifies his tempestuous hero as a roiling force of nature. While Boito and Verdi uphold the conceit — Otello’s blistering Esultate! (“Rejoice!”) is one of the most cyclonic entrance arias in all of Western music theatre — the figure of the brooding Moor as prisoner of his passions is only part of the broader Otello dynamic. Rescued from slavery, slayer of Turks, “little blest with the soft phrase of peace”, the fearless African-born general becomes, in many respects, the embodiment of l’alato Leon, a protector of Italian glory on the Romantic-era stage. Given our rather more circumspect 21st century perspective, Otello’s core protagonist ultimately comes into focus as more brutalized enforcer of dangerous nationalist ambitions than vaunted conquering hero. Weary, consumed by jealousy, Alden’s Otello surrenders his command of self, literally flinging his Act III marching orders into the air, a feverish expression of a life viciously drained of meaning.

For all the realignment of drama, however, the single most significant textual alteration from Othello to Otello is undoubtedly the wholesale omission of Shakespeare’s uncharacteristically shambling opening act. Gone, mercifully, are endless lines of dull exposition and, to Boito and Verdi’s eternal credit, the majority of outright racist epithets.

A less fortunate consequence of the prodigious structural cut is the disappearance of Desdemona’s father, the influential Venetian senator Brabantino from the plot, and with him the loss of explicit backstory as applied to Otello’s somewhat sketchily defined heroine. Shakespeare lavishes us with less than subtle clues to Desdemona’s sheltered upbringing. The resulting release of surging emotion that accompanies her first contact with the amorous Moor requires little in the way of creative visualization. Verdi and Boito’s Desdemona is defined in appreciably more innocent terms, caring, sensitive, kind, unfailingly pious as Alden reminds us. Seated next to a ubiquitous image of the Madonna — an entirely original directorial invention — the character assumes a decidedly saintly aura, a quality made even more palpable by a chorus of simple local townsfolk bearing lilies and roses in honour of her implied divinity. Dove guardi splendono raggi, avvampan cuori (“Whereso’er you turn your gaze, light shines, hearts are afire”). Verdi was a man of intense faith.

Inhabiting Otello’s namesake principal, Russell Thomas crafts a tense, tortured Moor, underpinning his performance with sturdy actorly stage manners. Though not a voice of heldentenor proportions generally regarded as a prerequisite for the role, Thomas’s well constructed, fine-tuned instrument with its shiny array of top notes is more than sufficiently assertive. Verdi’s long quasi Wagnerian vocal lines are forcefully conveyed. Crushed by frenzied misperceived notions of Desdemona’s alleged betrayal, gripped by bitterness and desperation, Otello pours out his pain. Dio! mi potevi scagliar (“God, Thou could have rained down every affliction upon me”). Thomas electrifies in a moving, superbly proportioned rendition of the composer’s supercharged lament.

Singing Desdemona, soprano Tamara Wilson floats her poignant, fragile character on an ocean of pathos. Gentle, infused with grace, powerless to avert disaster, Desdemona reaches deep into memory for a single haunting source of consolation. La canzone del salice (The Willow Song), gorgeously rendered by Wilson with exquisitely wistful pianissimo, encapsulates a universe of suffering, sweeping us up into the hushed infinite sadness.

Dominating the evening in an indisputably role-defining appearance, world baritone Gerald Finley conjures an Iago of immeasurable evil, a shadowy devilish conspirator cloaked in cunning and chiaroscuro. Proud and scornful, perched on the edge of the sweeping Four Seasons Centre stage, Finley takes command of the perpetual darkness that harbours Iago’s soul. Credo in un Dio crudel (“I believe in a cruel God”), proclaims Otello’s treacherous lieutenant with a twisted existential shout. It is an instant of great power, spiritually shattering, ringing with malevolence and perverted triumph.

Cast against type as Cassio, tenor Andrew Haji shuns the traditional mix of dash and charisma, opting for a polar opposite characterization, uncustomarily guileless and vulnerable. Melodramatically mustachioed fellow tenor Owen McCausland is an appropriately duplicitous Roderigo, unctuous and dangerous. Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule contributes a brave, compassionate Emilia sung with great strength of purpose.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra superlatively led by music director Johannes Debus applies full power in the pit, playing with blistering animation, easing to a whisper in gentler passages, Verdi’s vivid, inexhaustible score tirelessly upheld. The richness of harmony embedded in the music, the vibrancy of instrumental colour, the variety of texture is, without exception, brightly and boldly rendered. Crescendi are positively heart stopping.

Crowning the on-stage proceedings, the Canadian Opera Company Chorus, joined by a particularly engaging chorale courtesy the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, provides vital Verdian vocal mass to moments of spectacle.

Otello is arguably the most devastating of Verdi’s two dozen tragedies. Yet, for all its inevitability and monumental sorrow, at the end of the night, an air of deliverance prevails. As in Shakespeare, villainy is vanquished and a rough semblance of order restored. There is, however, virtually no sense of overarching catharsis.

Verdi, who had lost his wife and two children within a two-year period while in his mid-twenties, left the ultimate questions of life and death largely unanswered. We each respond in our own way. Otello draws us together. The COC’s current production is experience made intensely memorable.

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Above: Tamara Wilson as Desdemona, Russell Thomas as Otello. Photo: Michael Cooper