San Francisco Opera's fall season was so satisfying on artistic level that it seemed almost impossible that David Gockley could continue the company's string of successes all the way through to the end. And he hasn't. While the current Otello isn't nearly the disaster that last visited the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, there isn't much to recommend it unless you want to listen to it with your eyes closed and tune out what's going on onstage. For the first time, conductor Nicola Luisotti truly impressed me with a score, though that's not much of a reason to shell out the money to see it. Starting with the opening storm scene, Luisotti's brisk tempo created an urgency that captured my attention and his smooth conducting elicited many beautifully nuanced passages from one of Verdi's most beautiful scores.

Unfortunately there wasn't much beautiful singing to go along with it, though Marco Vratogna's Iago was well-acted and he had a menacing enough air about him to be the only believable countenance onstage in a production that was pretty much "park and bark." His voice was fair enough, and the chorus did an admirable job. From there it's all pretty much a shipwreck.

I saw the production twice, on the evenings of the 21st and the 25th. Zvetelina Vassileva's Desdemona sounded much better during the earlier performance. At the latter, especially during the second half, her voice declined markedly into something that was not at all pleasing to hear. The gentlemen seated next to us actually let out soft boos when she came out for the curtain- something I don't ever recall hearing for a singer in this house (though there have been a few that may have merited them). She sounded much better during the previous performance, though she isn't a captivating performer and her characterization elicited little sympathy.

Johan Botha was really the production's largest problem in every sense of the word. Yes, the man has a strong and warm voice, but he cannot act and he cannot move. His singing is over-mannered. The one visual I'll take away and probably never forget was the was way he was constantly pulling his robe over his considerable girth- if this was meant to characterize anger, indignation, an emotion or state of mind, it didn't. It only drew one's attention to the man's late-Pavarotti-esque physique. He was utterly unconvincing and thus from the moment he hit the stage I hated this Moor with his 70s hair and ridiculous copper-tinged blackface. Otello is not really the most sympathetic of characters in a lot of ways, but the audience has to care about him because he is a man of honor. Here he is portrayed as an oafish figure being taken advantage of in the most tragic way. He's duped- and comes off as a man who could be with relative ease. Put out the light Johan ...and pick up the phone and call a personal trainer or an acting coach.

The sets, from the Chicago Lyric Opera, made no sense at all. A three-tiered house of some sort with two columns rising from the center of the floor to nowhere, they were floor-to-ceiling clutter, and when Otello hid behind the staircase he wasn't lit even when he was singing. The columns inexplicably remained in place during the one set change (where the house-like backdrop was hidden by white drapes) to Desdemona's bedroom. Someone please tell me why these columns were there at all. Someone? Anyone?

Adler Fellow Renee Tatum was fine as Iago's wife Emilia, Beau Gibson was a wooden Cassio and Daniel Montenegro was also fine as Roderigo. Eric Halfvarson's Lodovico was a curious presence, arriving too late in the night to really have much of an impact. As I mentioned, the chorus sounded clear and robust.

Skip this one.