Otello as it should be (almost) at Opera Carolina

Maybe I don't read enough, but I've never heard much about Carl Tanner. That's not really true. I never heard of him period. When I bought my ticket to see Opera Carolina's production of Otello it was because I was going to be in Charlotte that night and seeing one of Verdi's best operas in a town where I knew no one seemed like a pretty good way to spend a night during a business trip. I may have heard of Sandra Lopez, this production's Desdemona, but having lived in California my entire life I've known a few Sandra Lopezes so who really knows. It's not a name that sticks out like Sondra Radvanovsky, right?

My expectations for a regional opera company featuring three leads I'd never heard of weren't particularly high and I expected to be charmed at best. Stupid me with my big-city San Francisco pretensions. I have finally seen a really good performance of Otello- courtesy of Carl Tanner, who I see used to be truck driver before he became an opera singer. Go figure. He's the most convincing performer in this role I've seen yet. Lopez was excellent too, reminding me of a young Ruth Ann Swenson. Jason Howard's Iago didn't work as well for me, mostly because his acting and stage presence couldn't match Tanner and Lopez, who, let me say it one more time, were exceptional in these roles.

What was so exceptional about Tanner is that Otello is a hard role to pull off. First of all, it's really demanding vocally, and on top of that, if the singer can't act the whole thing fails and fails big. Otello isn't a particularly sympathetic character and for his tragedy to work we need to care about him and feel his doubt, his anger, his insecurity and regret. Tanner is the first singer I've seen onstage to actually pull this off and make it look effortless. Desdemona, who can often come across as window dressing, was very sympathetically portrayed by Lopez in this production, especially in the final act's "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria." I'd readily see both of these singers again with enthusiasm.

The Opera Carolina Chorus also impressed me quite a bit with their cohesion, tone and enunciation. The sets and stage direction were simple but straightforward and effective and didn't look cheap or cheesy. It was a first class production, if not an opulent one.

There was one problem however, and it was significant since it was the conductor, James Meena. Meena chose to conduct Otello without a score. I could see this clearly since the Belk Theater has the largest, most open pit I've ever seen and sitting in the front row of the mezzanine I could see directly into it.

Really Mr. Meena? No score for Otello, huh? Next time I think he should use one. The strings during the opening storm scene were non-existent. The tempi were often way too fast. Entrances were missed, singers were obliterated by the orches tra's volume. All of which is too bad, because the orchestra sounded great at times, and has a terrific brass section and solid cello players. The rest of the strings though, sounded like they were flailing most of the night. Another bad choice on Meena's part was put the two trumpeters in the mezzanine in the third act. They were out of sync and it was really distracting. All of this is very noticeable because the Belk has fanstastic acoustics. I really don't understand this idea of conducting a score like this from memory. Is Meena one of the world's great Verdi conductors and I just didn't know this? Has the company done it so many times he knows like the back of his hand? Is the score that simple. No. It's one of Verdi's most complicated, nuanced works, perhaps only surpassed by Boccanegra in it's gorgeous tones and subtleties. Stupid choice, maestro- you were the weak link in an otherwise very fine evening at the opera.

Carl Tanner- a great Otello; Sandra Lopez- a great Desdemona. In Charlotte, North Carolina of all places. Seriously. On a side note, Charlotte has a lovely uptown area with some great architecture which I'll post once I return to California. It's really quite nice here.