The last time I experienced acoustics as perfect as those of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House was in the summer of 1969, when I saw a performance of the play “Antigone” in the 15,000 seat outdoor theater in Epidaurus, Greece, one of the most acoustically perfect spots on the planet.
At Epidaurus, I was able to hear every syllable the actors whispered from my top-of-the-venue seat. During the opening night performance of Verdi’s “Otello” at the new home of the Dallas Opera a week ago, I heard every breath soprano Alexandra Deshorties (Desdemona) took after Clifton Forbis (Otello) threw her to the floor at the end of Act III, even though we were in the third tier.
Despite a few glitches, the performance in the 2,200 seat hall was grand – on all levels.
Tenor Clifton Forbis needed an act and a half for his voice to reach full throttle, but once he warmed up, he became a brooding warrior and overbearing husband whose jealousy is fed by his evil lieutenant, Iago, sung with malicious glory by baritone Lado Antaneli.
During Antaneli’s curtain call, the audience showed its appreciation by booing, hissing and yelling out “bad man” when it was his turn to take a bow.
“He was upset until we told him the crowd was showing its appreciation for how well he sang the role,” said Maestro Graeme Jenkins. “We had to convince him that the audience liked him.”
Although she stepped into the role after the original soprano fell ill, Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties was an elegant and regal Desdemona. Her delivery of the “Willow Song” and the “Ave Maria” near the end of Act IV was the pinnacle of the evening.
Other performances of mention came from mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Turnbull as Desdemona’s loyal maid, Emilia, and tenor Sean Panikkar as Cassio. Even though he was on stage for a short time, Bass Raymond Aceto, impressed the audience with his role as the Venetian ambassador. The trio brought nobility to their roles with their voices and their powerful stage presence.
Maestro Jenkins has rearranged the configuration of the musicians to reflect that of the orchestras he leads in Vienna and Berlin. There were some timing issues between the orchestra and the singers on opening night, but that’s to be expected.
“We’re still learning,” Jenkins said in a sit-down interview the morning-after press conference in the Winspear’s lobby. “I’ve laid out the orchestra in a totally different formation than what they’re used to. It’s exactly the way I’m used to … with the solo instruments playing across the pit. It took Vienna 140 years to get it right. We’ve had two weeks here.”
What the opera did not get right was the staging and costumes. Originally set in a castle, production designer Anthony Baker has moved “Otello” to a bleak, fortress-like compound, devoid of color. In fact, everything is colorless. Against type, Otello is dressed in a black uniform. Iago, one of opera’s more despicable villains, is in all white. The chorus is dressed is white and gray, with the women taking on the role of nurses, while the men are cast as soldiers.
Maestro Jenkins said the modern setting of Otello helps the audience focus on the music. That might have been necessary in Music Hall, but since the music shines in the Winspear, why not let the staging be as luscious and wondrous?
Hopefully, the rest of the season will offer more color and splendor on the stage. Texans may not be as refined as European audiences, but we can watch pretty scenery and listen to beautiful music with the best of them.
During the post-opening press conference, someone said “Otello” was Bill and Margot Winspear’s favorite opera, so it was fitting that Verdi’s musical telling of Shakespeare’s great tragedy opened the intimate, opera-friendly hall on what would have been Mr. Winspear’s 76th birthday.
We had the privilege of riding in the elevator with Mrs. Winspear and her family. She was elegantly dressed in a black ball gown, with white beading and looked every inch the lady. We saw her after the performance and she was beaming, with good reason. She and her family can take great pride in the part they played in bringing grand opera to Dallas.
If you want to eat prior to the performance and pay $5 for valet parking that is valid for the duration of your stay, turn left on Pearl, cross over the freeway and turn left on Flora Street (crowded and lots of construction) or Ross Avenue, also crowded, but easier to navigate, and left on Routh. Go one block and One Arts Plaza will be on your right. One Arts Plaza has several restaurants, including Screen Door (modern Southern), Dali(wine bar and restaurant), Tei An (Japanese), Jorge’s (Tex-Mex) and Fedora (upscale Italian).
We enjoyed our pre-opera meal at Jorge’s, dining on delicious chicken enchiladas and brisket tacos.
One Arts Plaza also offers an extended golf cart, called an “Art Cart” that ferries patrons the one and a half blocks from the plaza to the Winspear. We didn’t take advantage of this free service, but I think it would be invaluable during inclement weather.
There are surface parking lots in the area that will charge between $5 and $15 on performance evenings.
Opera Overtures will be offered one hour before each performance. Overtures are free lectures prepared and presented by experts. The lectures truly enhance the opera experience, so arrive in time to attend them.
Dining is available at the Winspear. Reservations are required for the upper level restaurant. Café dining is available in the Grand Lobby for sandwiches and light fare. Call 214-443-1000 for more information.
Thursday, Nov. 5 at 7:30 and Sunday, Nov. 8 at 2 p.m.
Tickets available from $72 to $275.
For more information, call the box office at 214-443-1000.
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