In celebration of the Verdi bicentennial, Calgary Opera is devoting its main-stage season to the Italian master, starting last November with three performances of Otello. Canadians were cast in all four principal roles, starting with John Mac Master as the Moor. Mac Master has a considerable reputation as a heldentenor and in performance proved equal to the vocal heroics required. This included thrilling accounts of the vengeance duet with Iago that ends Act II and an impressive monologue in Act III. Dramatically, he projected the mercurial moods of his tortured character, and there were excellent moments in the duets with Desdemona, especially in Act III. Even with occasional moments of vocal roughness, one would have to walk many miles to find a singer who can encompass better the multiple demands of this role.
In her company debut, Joni Henson, whose attractive lyric soprano has good carrying strength, embodied the graceful elements of Des-demona very well. She is not yet experienced in the role, so while her Act IV Willow Song and Ave Maria were certainly competent, she did not vocally reach the level of poetic delicacy possible in this very special scene. Her best moments came in the opening duet and especially in her conflict with Otello in Act III, where vocal strength was most needed. With experience, this should become a very good role for Henson.
Gregory Dahl's Iago was the most entirely captivating peiformance. Avoiding vocal overstatement, he brilliantly captured the sinister quality beneath the apparently pleasant exterior. His engagement with Otello was entirely believable, his handling of the role's conversational aspect exemplary and his account of the Act II "Credo" outstanding. Physically suited to the role, too, his name was on everyone's lips at intermission.
Cassio suits Colin Ainsworth well, and he proved a notable presence in his many brief entrances after his exceptional Act I duet with Iago. All the secondary parts were well cast, with a splendidly sonorous Uwe Dambruch projecting the requisite dignity of Lodovico, Erin Lawson making the most of Emilia, and Robert Clark and Gene Wu vocally fine as Rodrigo and Montano.
Robert Tweten, drawing some fine playing from the Calgary Philharmonic, paced the score in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion, though I might have preferred a little more sensuousness in the nocturnal sections. Director Kelly Robinson's staging was quite traditional, but included those little touches in detail and finish that always mark his work. The chorus sang with gusto and was well integrated into the larger action. The complex opening scene had the planned confusion it needs, and the pageant-like Act III finale projected all the grandeur of imperial Venice. The action flowed in a simple, direct way in Scott Reid's unitary set, while Harry Frehner's understated lighting conveyed the opera's chiaroscuro admirably.