Until Saturday night at the Benedum Center, it had been almost a quarter-century since Pittsburgh Opera last produced Verdi’s “Otello.” Written late in the composer’s career, the opera is a masterpiece not only for its music but for its libretto, by Arrigo Boito, that successfully adapted Shakespeare’s tragedy for the operatic stage.
Why the hiatus? There are plenty of factors that go into selecting a season’s roster of operas; in this case, casting is an arduous task, with the title role demanding a weighty tenor voice and an artist with high acting skills.
Last year, Pittsburgh Opera discovered its Otello in Carl Tanner, who made his local debut as Radames in another Verdi opera, “Aida.” The tenor is becoming a regular in Pittsburgh, having performed in the company’s gala concert last month.
Staging this opera following a long break has several draws. The composer, plot and, one might say, musical language are familiar, even if the work itself is not; it provides another avenue for the company to expand the musical “contract” it has with local audiences, as general director Christopher Hahn has told me.
Also compelling was the opportunity to cast Danielle Pastin, a former resident artist who still lives in Pittsburgh, as Desdemona. It was the soprano’s debut in this demanding role, although she sang it like a veteran, with a liquid, honeyed tone that from her first entrance onward captured her character’s purity and innocence. Those abilities were on display, too, in the major solos of the final act, Ave Maria and the Willow Song — was any moment more gut-wrenching than her farewell to Emilia (Laurel Semerdjian)? Watching a locally developed talent thrive in this production was the most rewarding part of the evening.
Mr. Tanner has lingering bronchitis, as Mr. Hahn announced from the stage after the first intermission. But outside of a few snaps and crackles (and a somewhat smaller size compared to last year’s Radames), he still had a lot of pop in his voice, especially in a powerful second act duet with Iago that culminated in climactic high notes. One hopes his hoarseness doesn’t worsen over the coming week.
The solid Iago of Anthony Michaels-Moore featured an attractive russet tone that somewhat lacked the edge of the opera’s devilish character. Dressed in the 16th-century equivalent of motorcycle gear, the baritone had a slimy presence that elevated the dramatic element of the production directed by Kristine McIntyre.
Current and former resident artists filled out most of the remaining roles, including a bright Cassio (Daniel Curran) and a confidently sung Montano (Alex DeSocio). Antony Walker conducted the orchestra, drawing out commendable woodwind solos but making some surprising tempo selections, as in an overly leisurely drinking song of the first act. The chorus sounded a bit thin in the opening scene, generating more grandeur by the third act.
Allen Charles Klein’s set, provided by Cincinnati Opera, allowed for two tiers of action with a wide staircase leading to a second-level stage. It was given a disquieting quality with red and blue lighting, designed by Marcus Dilliard.
Repeats 7 p.m. Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.