West Bay Opera's new production of Verdi's "Otello" is commanding from the second the curtain rises, with a nervous chorus watching unseen ships founder in a tempestuous sea. The singers sway in a green-gray world behind a hazy curtain, with flickering lanterns and lightning flashes (thanks to a few perfectly placed strobe lights). The whole scene has a properly queasy "Raft of the Medusa" look.
These fine visuals by set designer Peter Crompton and lighting designer Steven Mannshardt lead the way into a powerful telling of Shakespeare's story. The orchestra booms under the capable baton of Jose Luis Moscovich, and we're off on a course for jealousy, vengeance oaths, heady arias and murder.
The shipboard person about whom the chorus frets is Otello, the new Venetian governor of Cyprus, returning home from victory in battle with the Turks. When the Moor steps safely onto shore, everyone is relieved except scheming ensign Iago, furious that Otello has granted Captain Cassio the promotion that Iago desired. And hell hath no fury, etc. Aforementioned schemes are about to be unleashed on Cassio, Otello and Otello's wife, Desdemona.
The vivid production values of this rendition of Verdi's 1887 work show how far West Bay has come. In 1969, the company presented "Otello" with a simple pairing of two pianos.
The voices don't hurt, either. The opening-night audience was clearly pleased to have the smooth tenor of David Gustafson (Otello) back on the Lucie Stern Theatre stage after his turns as Radames in "Aida" and Calaf in "Turandot." Philip Skinner contributed a cannon of a baritone as Iago, with earnest soprano Cynthia Clayton as Desdemona and energetic tenor Nadav J. Hart as Cassio.
The length of the opera gives Otello's rage ample time to develop. In the beginning, the governor is tender with his wife, with the lovely duet "Gia nella notte densa (Now in the dark night)." On opening night, there was only a hint of foreshadowing in the way Otello laid Desdemona down and reached down to kiss her, just a flicker of the violence to come. As Iago began to weave his web, slowly convincing Otello that his wife had been unfaithful, Otello's rage was kindled, growing into something irrational and unstoppable. Skinner's sneering voice and Gustafson's expressive eyes kept the story building.
A highlight between the two came at the end of Act II with the roar of the duet known as "Si, pel ciel marmoreo giruo (Yes, I swear by marbled heaven)." As the two swore their revenge for Desdemona's "infidelity," the opening-night audience shouted its approbation. Well deserved.
Occasional touches of humor were welcome, as when tenor Otello mocked Iago's big voice, and the female chorus was particularly sweet when presenting gifts to Desdemona. Clayton was plaintive in her final "Willow Song," a tune about a girl who loses her lover, sung just before Otello steals into the bedroom in the night to ask, "Have you prayed tonight, Desdemona?"
Pray she does, and Clayton remains compelling, even as she is asked to spend much of the opera professing her innocence over and over.
But, as everyone knows, this story turns on the plottings of Iago. In another nice scenic touch, one set change is done at the wave of the ensign's hand. A set piece rises and a platform moves, the world changing at his command.
What: "Otello" by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on William Shakespeare's "Othello," presented by West Bay Opera
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Remaining performances are June 1 at 8 p.m. and June 2 at 2 p.m. (This is a co-production with Festival Opera; performances at the Lesher Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek are scheduled for June 28 at 8 p.m. and June 20 at 2 p.m.)
Cost: Tickets are $40 to $75.
Info: Go to wbopera.org or call the box office at 650-424-9999.