Rejoice! The Muslim's pride is buried in the sea." Ordinarily, when the flawed hero of Verdi's Otello delivers that rousing entrance line, fresh from a decisive battle with his enemy, we are safely situated mentally and visually back in the 15th century with Venetians and their jealousy-prone Moorish general. A very different, even uncomfortable picture greets audiences for a new production by Summer Opera in Washington.
The opening scene is an aircraft carrier with a deck full of troops in desert camouflage gear. The title character, in a trim military outfit, struts out and delivers his words of victory to a TV film crew. You might expect a banner to appear, declaring: "Message Accomplished."
By the second act, that message is driven home even harder, as this Otello is revealed to be the head of a foreign force occupying a Muslim country. The identity of that occupier is not revealed. After all, as stage director Joe Banno points out in a note in the program book, Verdi's "opera professes no political agenda."
On the other hand, Banno writes that Otello (based on Shakespeare's Othello) reminds us "that belief in personal or military invincibility is a dangerous illusion ... and that self-proclaimed truth-tellers are sometimes the most virulent liars. Perhaps these are lessons we should be heeding."
Such a pointed directorial concept certainly makes this production provocative, if not entirely persuasive. Although the surtitles avoid translating anything in the libretto that doesn't quite jibe with the updating, the opera often seems forced into its new setting, saddled with the new implications.
It's easy enough to imagine that the chorus in the opening scene is singing about an airplane making a bumpy approach to the carrier, rather than a sailing vessel in a storm. But it's tougher to see them boogying awkwardly later to Iago's drinking song, let alone seeing in the next act a delegation of Arab civilians presenting gifts to Otello's wife, Desdemona, to adorn her "like a sacred image."
Still, Banno reveals the strength of his convictions through astutely detailed direction that keeps the action flowing tautly and tellingly to its gruesome conclusion.
Musically, the production has a lot going for it. Sunday afternoon's opening performance at the Hartke Theatre on the campus of Catholic University, where Summer Opera has made its home for 26 years, caught fire from the first measures and never flagged.
I don't know how well Michael Hayes would fill Otello's vocal shoes in a mammoth opera house, but in this 590-seat venue the tenor made a remarkable impression. All the notes of this extremely challenging role were surely sung, with plenty of power to back them up. When the music turned tender, he couldn't exactly sweeten the voice, but found ways to create a more sensitive effect.
As Desdemona, Fabiana Bravo delivered a stellar performance, with a rich, burgundy patina, evenness of projection and beautifully molded phrasing. She was especially riveting in the last act (when her dressing gown was so retro she could have been in a traditional, Renaissance-setting production).
Donald Sherrill conveyed Iago's slime compellingly. The baritone's singing was gruff and prone to flatness, but effective at putting the text across. (Shouldn't he have been in uniform for the banquet scene, like Otello, rather than black tie?)
Issachah Savage (Cassio) and the rest of the soloists did sturdy work. The chorus was under-powered and not always together. The small orchestra proved remarkably capable, especially in the big, brassy scenes. Hajime Teri Murai conducted with as much momentum as lyrical eloquence. Christopher Ash designed the sets for this new take on an old masterwork of music and theater.
Where: Hartke Theatre, Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Road, N.E., Washington
When: 7:30 tonight, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $40 to $100