Portland Summerfest

By Jeff Winslow

A storm at sea, drunken swordplay, a hero insecure to the point of tragic flaw, and a sadistic villain playing him like a cheap honky-tonk piano, leading to murder and suicide – Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Otello,” adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare, is certainly no picnic in the park.

But wait – that’s exactly what it is! Portland’s own international maestro Keith Clark narrates – spellbindingly, if history is any guide – and directs four star soloists, a live orchestra and chorus in Portland SummerFest’s 11th Annual Opera production at Washington Park Amphitheater, next to the Rose Gardens, at 6 pm on Friday, August 2, and at Concordia University Campus Green at 6 pm August 4. That’s two parks, not just one. And you are more than welcome to bring your picnic.

SummerFest at Concordia

SummerFest at Concordia

“Otello” is one of those rare works in which a composer who is a past master at capturing an audience’s attention and holding it, an utterly practical man of the theater, goes and does exactly what he pleases, bringing to bear a whole lifetime of experience and imagination. Far from being played out, Verdi in his 70’s – not unlike the five 75-year-old American composers featured at a recent Chamber Music Northwest concert – was at the absolute peak of his powers.

And what was his pleasure? All his creative life, Verdi was positioned against Richard Wagner, that noisy high-flown German, as the champion of Italian opera: direct, visceral and earthy. It was time to pick and choose what Verdi considered the best of Wagner’s harmonic and structural innovations, pare them down to their essence, and make them his own. The result is a double rarity, in that it is also a synthesis of the two great 19th century operatic traditions. Without losing any directness, Verdi infused “Otello” with a dazzling richness that to this day entrances the novice and connoisseur alike.


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