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Leave 'Em Wanting Moor

Acclaimed conductor Robert Spano leads Cincinnati Opera's production of 'Otello'

By Anne Arenstein · July 6th, 2010 · Onstage
Cincinnati Opera’s 90th anniversary season roars back with Otello, Verdi’s brilliant setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy of toxic doubt and jealousy. There’s plenty of drama onstage, but look for an equally compelling performance from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and one of the most acclaimed conductors in the business.

Critics rave about the enthusiasm and excitement he draws from performers and his imaginative programming that attracts new audiences for traditional and contemporary music. Since Spano joined the ASO in 2001, attendance and single-ticket sales increased dramatically and the orchestra has garnered international recognition in addition to a slew of Grammy awards.

When I caught up with Spano, he'd just finished a full day rehearsing with both the cast and the orchestra. His energy level could have carried him through another 24 hours.

“The orchestra is terrific,” he says.

Although Spano hasn't worked previously with any of the singers, he finds all of them “great performers.” It’s not his first time with the CSO, but this is his Cincinnati Opera debut as well as his debut conducting Otello, a dream assignment for someone who readily acknowledges being “a sucker for Verdi.”

“It’s the sheer beauty of the music, especially a score like Otello,” Spano says. “It’s genius with an absolute mastery of craft.”

Verdi was approaching 70 when his publisher Giulio Ricordi and librettist Arrigo Boito began campaigning for him to tackle Otello. Despite Verdi’s reservations (due to his age and fatigue), his love of Shakespeare and Boito’s skill at adapting the play for opera propelled him to begin work years before the premiere in 1877.

Boito’s libretto is a masterpiece, paring scenes and characters and intensifying the explosive emotions at play between Otello, Desdemona and Iago.

“It’s so brilliant in its concision,” Spano says. “It’s almost like a letter to Wagner saying, ‘I can do in two hours what you can’t do in six.’ ”

Spano speaks from experience: He conducted two wildly successful Ring cycles in Seattle and is quick to assure me of his love for Wagner’s scores.

“As you go through the score, it’s one jewel after another,” he says. “There’s such variety. Part of the reason we’re gripped is because of the contrasts. That storm at the beginning of Act I ends with Otello and Desdemona’s love duet, a gorgeous, tender melody.”

Spano says he spent more than a year preparing for Otello, “playing the score, reading Shakespeare, listening to recordings, studying the libretto.” He adds that it takes “a particular push of energy to get to where you feel at home with a new project” and he works closely with Stage Director Bernard Uzan to inform his own reading of the score.

“That’s part of the thrill of working in opera, that marriage of expressions,” Spano says. “And Bernard is such a man of the theater, so insightful.”

Singers rely on the director to move them across the stage but they depend on the conductor to get them through the opera. Spano gets that.

“They’re the ones on stage,” he says, “and I’m in the pit, so my job is to be the foundation and the support.”

A native of Ohio, Spano earned degrees from Oberlin and the Curtis Institute of Music and has led major orchestras throughout North American and Europe. He's a dedicated proponent of new music and, over the past nine years, commissioned 55 new works by 33 composers, recording several for Telarc Records. (Spano and the ASO recorded Osvaldo Gulijov’s Ainadamar with most of the cast who performed in last year’s superb production here in Cincinnati. It’s a must-have.)

Spano’s work with contemporary composers strengthens his appreciation for Verdi, who was, he says, “searching, always trying to do something new and elusive.” Verdi didn’t stop with Otello; at the age of 80 he made his operatic exit with the rollicking comedy Falstaff. In Otello, the structure is flawless, moving from one event to the next.

“There’s such a density of information in small time frames,” Spano says. “If this were on a periodic table, it would be one of the densest elements.”

The goal is an emotional response from audiences.

“The one thing that I would hope is that it’s worth it to be there, to be thrilled by it or to hate it,” Spano says.

Grinning, he adds, “There are as many experiences as there are people in the room.”

OTELLO is presented by Cincinnati Opera at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday at Music Hall. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.


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