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Placido Domingo just announced Washington Opera’s 2000-2001 season and, given the programming patterns he’s established, even the surprises are unsurprising. There are the Big French Opera Everyone’s Forgotten (Massenet’s Don Quichotte), the requisite Puccini (Turandot), a pair of Verdis (Il Trovatore and Don Carlo), a pair of classic comedies (Il Barbiere de Siviglia and Le Nozze di Figaro), the Big German Opera Nobody’s Forgotten Except Washington Opera (Parsifal), and yet another easy-on-the-ears American chestnut (Menotti’s The Consul). Casting looks uniformly strong—the exquisite Anna Netrebko returns in Figaro and Domingo finally graces Washington with his first-rate Wagner-singing in Parsifal—and at least three of the directors seem poised to give us something credible to look at.

But the choice of the five-hour-plus, magnificent, infuriating Parsifal over Wagner’s shorter, friendlier, more tuneful Tannhauser and Lohengrin—both equally rare in this town and both fine Domingo vehicles—is bizarre. Also odd is the decision to do Barbiere and Figaro (which are two halves of the same Beaumarchais plot line) but not to cast, design, or schedule them with anything resembling continuity or even proximity. And, laudable as it was to program two Verdi warhorses for the composer’s centennial season, the company’s disheartening luck with Verdi productions make Trovatore and Carlo seem its most daunting challenges.

But WashOp has a new show in town right now—Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece, Otello, which closes the current opera season—and it’s good. It’s good in its own right, and even better in the context of WashOp’s Verdi-challenged history. It should be noted that the company’s difficulties with this 19th-century icon have rarely centered on singing, which has, more often than not, been quite strong. The problem has been one of creating productions that make this most theater-savvy of Italian opera composers look risibly melodramatic and unredeemably old-fashioned—an old fart worth attention merely because he knew how to write a swell tune.

But, like Shakespeare, Verdi could take the dustiest old stories, the most overwrought emotional situations, the least likely relationships, and transform them into works of universality and transcendence and psychological complexity. And when Verdi and the Bard (by way of Arrigo Boito’s literate, sophisticated librettos) came together, the results reached a pinnacle of operatic form. Otello is a melting pot of bel canto lyricism, Wagnerian leitmotif, and Elizabethan poetry. The world it creates is one where private lives are publicly exposed and public lives are destroyed with a word. Verdi was writing at inspirational white heat here, and his grand opera rhetoric is as eloquent as his quietest, inward-looking arias.

Not that you’d be able to tell that from the WashOp Otello that premiered in 1992. In ’92, only one singer could do full justice to the punishing role of Otello: Placido Domingo. And Washington Opera didn’t have him. They had Ermanno Mauro, whose huffing, puffing, arm-flapping, eye-bugging slog through the title role did neither Shakespeare nor Verdi any favors. Add the handsome-voiced but long-in-the-tooth Desdemona and a promising young Iago who had nothing to work with in the ho-hum staging and you had…well, certainly not Otello.

The current revival of that infamous production doesn’t begin auspiciously. Cheesy strobe-lightening flashes make all the faux granite in Zack Brown’s set look even more plastic than it is, and the chorus, for all its enthusiastic gnashing of teeth, looks silly under the low-rent meteorology. But as the soloists start getting to work, director Sonja Frisell’s staging takes on some compelling life.

Key to the production’s success is young Argentine tenor superstar (and Domingo protege) Jose Cura. Cura’s under an unusual level of scrutiny here. This revival, after all, was to have been D.C.’s chance to experience Domingo’s near-definitive Otello in the flesh at long last. So when it became clear that WashOp would remount the opera, but Domingo (who just sang it last fall at the Met) would be retiring the role of Otello moments before our local production opened—choosing instead to conduct the revival—it all seemed like some mean-spirited joke. Casting the young Cura in a role most tenors wait their entire careers before tackling was a controversial move.

But youth has its advantages. Cura’s got runway-model looks, which he exploits in a series of smoldering poses straight out of the International Male catalogue. He’s also got that Latin thing going, which worked well for Domingo and Carreras early in their careers, and never hurts in the leading-man sweepstakes. And you can practically count the number of hours he spends each week at the gym, thanks to what must be the tightest costumes ever worn by an opera singer. (My girlfriend managed to take every conversation we had about Cura’s singing and turn it around to the subject of his thighs, which she was evidently mesmerized by.) Cura achieves what most tenors can’t, even with a battery of corsets and hairpieces: heroic credibility.

Cura’s acting, despite the element of self-regard in some of his antics, is strikingly effective. This Otello’s affection toward Desdemona looks lived-in and genuine. There are an enveloping tenderness and an erotic charge to their relationship that are rarely communicated so well on the opera stage. As his character starts unraveling, Cura creates a canny mix of crushing disappointment and repressed rage that tips over gradually into psychosis. Physical passion is inextricably bound up here with the potential for annihilating (ultimately self-annihilating) violence, and only a creepy, pretty-boy charm stands between impulse and action. To Cura’s credit, he avoids the standard-issue blackface—there has yet to appear an African-American dramatic tenor with the vocal chops and acting ability to claim this role on world stages—using his own swarthy complexion to suggest the Arab, rather than the African, side of Otello’s Moorish heritage. And in a nice bit of Shakespearean accuracy, Cura generates a convincing epileptic seizure at the close of Act 3.

Vocally, he’s in much the same form as in WashOp’s Samson et Dalila last season. The dark baritonal timbre is still virile and thrilling, the support sure up and down the wide compass of the role. It’s an instrument capable of conveying dramatic change with great immediacy. If there are any surprises this time around, it’s the way Cura comes off the high notes fairly quickly. Nothing in the sound or production of those notes is strained or awkward—quite the contrary—which suggests that he’s trying to conserve the voice, not just through each performance, but for the long haul. (Otello, after all, is a notorious voice-wrecker.)

It was interesting to see what the still-younger Ian DeNolfo has made of the title role. (He alternates with Cura through the end of the run.) Beefier and even more physically imposing than Cura, he makes simpler, quieter acting choices that don’t spell out Otello’s motivations in capital letters but prove emotionally effective nonetheless. If Cura is like a panther who’s placed in successively smaller cages as the story progresses, DeNolfo is more of a hunted bear, taking a new bullet from his predator at the top of each act. DeNolfo’s voice is, arguably, better suited to the role than Cura’s (or, in terms of pure vocal weight, Domingo’s, for that matter). He produces a torrent of sound, mostly at a decibel level that could do architectural damage, and far from shying away from high notes, he makes a meal of them. He recalls the sound of Francesco Tamagno—Verdi’s tenor of choice, and the creator of this role—and we can only hope his affection for volume volume volume doesn’t translate into a three-year career that ends with him blowing his lungs out through his nostrils and moving to the Great Plains to teach at a small college. Already, his voice slips in and out of focus when he sings softly, and his Act 4 sounds a tad raw around the edges. Keep your fingers crossed.

Tatiana Pavlovskaya, who sings Desdemona in the second cast opposite DeNolfo, also scores points with her natural, understated acting, and her willowy frame lends the character appropriate fragility. But she seems odd vocal casting for Desdemona, her tinselly edge and fluttery vibrato making her sound lightweight in the part, despite the vivid emotional responsiveness of the voice (especially in her touchingly done Act 4 arias).

Cura’s Desdemona, Veronica Villarroel, is the real goods. Fast becoming WashOp’s most valuable house soprano, she’s a genuine Verdi spinto with a middle register like warm caramel, a melancholy cast to the sound that’s tailor-made for tragic heroines, and the ability to float ethereal high notes. Villarroel’s acting is broader than Pavlovskaya’s, built from a traditional vocabulary of stances and gestures and glances heavenward. But, to her credit, she makes it all look like second nature, and because she believes it, we pretty much believe it, too, and can be moved.

Justino Diaz has been singing Iago for a lot of years now, and his interpretation is an amalgam of naturalistic acting, blank-faced singing, vibrant physicality, stock poses, rote bits of business, verbal subtlety, vocal bluster, and sheer chutzpah. It was instructive seeing him on opening night and again the following week, on the first night with the alternate cast. At the opening, he seemed engaged in playing his character only when not singing. His voice was in trouble, with hoarse patches, tired high notes, a lot of uncomfortable sharp singing (no doubt in an effort to avoid even more uncomfortable flat singing), barking attacks, and vocal effects taking the place of a direct response to the text. At the subsequent performance, Diaz sounded in far better vocal health and (probably as a result) looked more relaxed and involved, with a clearer through-line to his acting. His Iago, by the second go-round, was a compelling creation—part courtier, part glad-handing politician, part thug, with the kind of unnerving vacancy in the eyes you see in those interviews with serial killers.

Among a strong supporting cast, Corey Evan Rotz contributes an endearing doofus of a Cassio, sung with a callow, mellifluous lyric tenor, and Daniel Sumegi, singing Lodovico, is as imposing (and cotton-mouthed) as he was in I Puritani earlier this season. Director Frisell creates clear-headed stage business for the singers overall while giving her leads in both casts the freedom to incorporate alternate ideas to make these roles their own. (Frisell’s one serious miscalculation was to have Otello hurl Desdemona to the floor in Act 3 and not have anyone—not the outraged nobles, not Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting—move a muscle to aid her.)

Domingo has gotten a lot of flack for his journeyman conducting in the past, but I’ve never encountered a Domingo-conducted performance that went seriously off the rails or lacked imaginative interpretive ideas. Otello, which Domingo might well know better than anyone else on the planet, reveals many felicities under his baton, and he has a vivid sense of how to pace the score’s drama. Ensemble, though, was intermittently sketchy at both performances. Some tricky numbers, like Iago’s drinking song in Act 1, held together well, but the opera’s opening chorus veered dangerously out of sync with the orchestra.

Domingo was on his home turf at “The Domingo Gala for the 21st Century” on March 12, sharing the stage with spirits of Washington Opera past, present, and future. He was in gleaming form, lavishing his ageless voice on Russian and German opera—the gripping Act 1 love duet from Wagner’s Die Walkure, sung with the formidable Susan Patterson, is probably the only 20 minutes of The Ring we’ll be hearing in D.C. until the KenCen Opera House is renovated—as well as zarzuela and Viennese operetta. Dwayne Croft stopped the show as the Barber of Seville, Hei-Kyung Hong charmed as Giuditta and the Merry Widow, and Pavlovskaya was spectacularly effective in the final scene of Eugene Onegin (strongly partnered by Sergei Leiferkus), her vocal and dramatic gifts so much better used here than in Otello. WashOp music director Heinz Fricke, who conducted a wide range of music with his usual reliability, shared the podium with Valery Gergiev. Gergiev, the inspirational leader of the revitalized Kirov Opera, is one of our greatest living conductors. I mean it as no slight to Fricke when I say that the Opera House Orchestra sounded as if an electric current had suddenly shot through it whenever Gergiev took over. Washington Opera’s first goal of the 21st century should be engaging this Russian force of nature to conduct any and every production he has a desire to. Opera in this town would never be the same. CP