David Alden’s new production of Verdi's Otello for Grange Park Opera presents us with a military society, Cyprus as Imperial overseas outpost. Uniforms are mid-20th century, guns are carried as well as swords, Desdemona is shot not smothered. Charlie Edwards’ single set serves for the opening quayside storm with some breakers seen through a large rear window, as a barracks (both office and Officers’ Mess), and as Desdemona’s fatal bedroom – even the Governor’s wife sleeps on a camp bed. The back wall is half-covered by a floor-length curtain, which Otello deploys in Act 3 for the ignoble operatic art of “lurking unseen”. The grey-suited, briefcase-carrying Ambassadors appear to have arrived to do the annual audit, but end up scrutinising the morals not the money of this foreign legion. Above all, Alden's militarised Cyprus is a closed society where Iago’s manipulations can flourish unremarked until too late.

Simon Keenlyside (Iago)
© Marc Brenner

Sir Simon Keenlyside’s Iago, a lithe stage animal, drives the action, even appearing on stage before curtain up, receding into the background, stepping forward to progress his plan, everybody’s friend and nobody’s fool. It was consistent with Alden’s direction that Iago does not make the usual swift departure once exposed in Act 4, but sits onstage to observe the destruction of his prey. Vocally impressive both in his “Credo” right through to its final high F, and in a sensuously insinuating “Era la notte” (briefly accompanied by a ringtone), we heard why Verdi almost called the opera Iago.

Simon Keenlyside (Iago) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Otello)
© Marc Brenner

Desdemona, the collateral damage of his scheme to destroy her husband, was Elizabeth Llewellyn, gracious and touching in her brief happy moments, then bewildered, shocked and terrified as her fate unfolded. All these emotions were there in her voice and movement. If her spinto tone was a bit too generous in a small house for the simple Willow Song, almost everywhere else her singing was lustrous, not least in the Act 1 love duet.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Desdemona) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Otello)
© Marc Brenner

That wonderful duologue (hardly a conventional duet) was the one place where Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Otello slightly disappointed, rather loud so lacking tenderness. Ironically at the close when recalling that moment (“un altro bacio”), but with a wife he has just slain, he was superbly affecting, the controlled mezza-voce of a man himself dying, confronting all the pain of regret at his appalling credulity and loss. As the battalion’s General he was commanding indeed, with an “Esultate” entry suggesting a man accustomed to adoring crowds saluting his victories. Hughes Jones gives us an Otello of stature, a man with a long way to fall, so at the end we feel it really is his tragedy.

Anthony Flaum (Roderigo), Simon Keenlyside (Iago) and chorus
© Marc Brenner

The Cassio of Elgan Llŷr Thomas was weak of character, not quite Captain material perhaps, persuasively sung and well acted. His scene in the Officers’ Mess with Iago featured some stage business in which a portrait of the Virgin served as a dartboard with a sacred heart bullseye, showing the faux camaraderie Iago exploits. Olivia Ray’s Emilia, Anthony Flaum’s Roderigo and Matthew Brook's Lodovico all made the most of their important plot contributions.

Otello, Act 3
© Marc Brenner

The Grange Park Opera Chorus was outstanding, both in the opening storm scene, the brindisi and the big concertato of Act 3, which built to a thrilling “wall-of-sound” impact in this space. Gianluca Marcianò conducted the Gascoigne Orchestra with a sure sense of tempo and balance, even though the deep pit muted some of the biggest orchestral moments, including the ff tutta forza five-octave descent into the abyss that launches Iago’s “Credo”. But the orchestra certainly did justice to the tragic power and potent detail of this mighty work, as did the whole production.