Otello in OTELLO

Canadian Opera Company

“A rare black tenor to be cast in the part, Russell Thomas imbues Otello with vocal and psychological nuance. Why don’t major opera houses cast black singers in the role? It’s not an easy problem to solve: Otello requires a dramatic tenor with a wide vocal range, the power to cut through heavy orchestration, and the skill to make the long, declamatory passages sing—ideally, a voice that marries Wagnerian stamina and Italianate beauty. Even regardless of skin color, the universe of tenors who can sing it well is small. But the controversy has finally jolted opera companies into actively looking for black tenors who fill the bill. Russell Thomas is one of them. On Saturday, the black American tenor sang his first staged Otello (he had previously performed the role in concert), and his assured vocalism and theatrical acuity were central to the success of the Canadian Opera Company’s chilling new production. Rather than try to compete, or bellow his way through the stentorian parts of the title role, Mr. Thomas went for nuance. His entrance ‘Esultate!’ rang out with clarion conviction; later, as Iago slowly wound him up, he varied his volume and expression, so that when he exploded in fury, it came as a shock. This was an insightfully psychological portrayal: Even in the love duet of Act I, one sensed the outsider Otello’s underlying anguish, and his lack of confidence around anything other than war. Mr. Thomas began ‘Dio! mi potevi,’ Otello’s moment of greatest despair, flat on his back, almost at a whisper, and the suicide at the end was sung with the bleakness of total defeat.”
–Heidi Waleson, Wall Street Journal

“Otello is an excellent vehicle for Thomas’ hearty voice and his interpretation of the role demonstrated great sophistication. While Carmen’s Don Jose is a domestic abuser for whom I justifiably have no sympathy, my feelings towards Otello are less one note. His actions are no less reprehensible, but there are so many more reasons why he is such a ripe target for a master manipulator like Iago. Thomas brings all of this to life on stage in the most compelling and authentic way. While there are many stunning and familiar arias in this magnificent opera, some of the most captivating and interesting moments lie in the duets. The marriage of Thomas and Wilson’s voices during Gia nella notte densa, the love duet that concludes Act I was decadently pretty while still drawing out the dark foreshadowing that effected largely through more chromaticism and subtle dissonance than the ear expects from a love duet. The singers both have very substantial voices and are well matched. The contrast created by Wilson’s warm tone and Thomas’ crisper, edgier tone was delightful. Equally entrancing was Thomas and Finley’s Act II finale Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro (Yes, by the marble heavens I swear). The two men join in a vow of vengeance but it is quite clear that Iago’s vengeance has a very different target. This tangible emotion is matched with Thomas’ anguish and outrage over Desdemona’s believed betrayal.”
–Keira Grant, Mooney on Theatre

“Russell Thomas, as Otello, delivered a subtle and exceptionally nuanced performance; his voice explored Otello from a profoundly internal space.”
–Aparna Halpé, Plays to See

“Thomas’s performance is carefully thought out, his authority established from his clarion-call opening notes onward, his jealous fury building gradually and inevitably… Make no mistake. It’s in the music that this Otello triumphs.”
–Glenn Sumi, Now Toronto

“An exemplary cast. Russell Thomas has the distinction of being the first person of colour ever to sing Otello at the COC. He has performed here before in Norma and Carmen in 2016 and in Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2012, but never has his tenor sounded so heroic and Italianate nor has his acting shown such intensity as it does in this role. Thomas succeeds in carefully delineating Otello’s decline from an overly proud conqueror at the start of the action to a broken man who demeans himself by obsessively demanding “Il fazzoletto” (“the handkerchief”) to each of Desdemona’s remarks in Act 3. In Act 4 Thomas’s voice takes on a greater range expressivity and tone that brings out Otello’s sensitivity even as he prepares himself for murder.”

–Christopher Hoile, Stage Door Review

“Featuring an all-star cast of seasoned performers including tenor Russell Thomas…Otello exceeds all expectations with its intense narrative, and stunning visuals. Anchored by a mesmerizing performance by Thomas in the title role, the production takes you on a journey of true love, revenge, and morality. Thomas’ performance oozes sophistication and considering the vocal challenges that a production like Otello throws at a performer, Thomas pulls it off with ease as he brings the title character to life with steadfast devotion, strong vocal delivery, and exceptional stage presence. The COC’s 2019 version of Otello is a tour-de-force experience with exceptionally authentic performances by the aforementioned Thomas…”

–Curtis Sindrey, Aesthetic Magazine

“Inhabiting Otello’s namesake principal, Russell Thomas crafts a tense, tortured Moor… Thomas’s well constructed, fine-tuned instrument with its shiny array of top notes is more than sufficiently assertive. Verdi’s long quasi Wagnerian vocal lines are forcefully conveyed. Crushed by frenzied misperceived notions of Desdemona’s alleged betrayal, gripped by bitterness and desperation, Otello pours out his pain. Dio! mi potevi scagliar (“God, Thou could have rained down every affliction upon me”). Thomas electrifies in a moving, superbly proportioned rendition of the composer’s supercharged lament.”

–Ian Ritchie, Opera Going Toronto

“Russell Thomas had the distinction of being the first black man to sing Otello at the COC. Thomas has sung here several times before, but never has his tenor sounded so heroid and Italianate as in this Otello, nor has his acting previously shown the intensity it did in this role. Thomas delineated Otello’s decline from an overly proud conqueror at the start of the action to a broken man who demeans himself by obsessively demanding “Il fazzoletto” to each of Desdemona’s remarks in Act III. In Act IV, Thomas sang with expressive tone that allowed Otello’s sensitivity to emerge, even as he prepared himself to commit murder.”
-Christopher Hoile, Opera News

Beth Stewart18/19