Review | NSO inaugurates ‘Opera in Concert’ series with an electric ‘Otello’

It was a full and fired-up house at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Friday night, the whole place notably buzzier than usual before the lights dimmed. The stage was also quite mobbed, with the ranks of the National Symphony Orchestra joined by a sizable contingent of singers from the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the University of Maryland Concert Choir and (later in the evening) the Children’s Chorus of Washington.

The occasion of this ambient excitement was a performance by the NSO of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” that doubled as the inaugural installment of “Opera in Concert,” a new series driven by the pledge of maestro Gianandrea Noseda to perform at least one concert presentation of an opera each season. (In January 2025, Noseda will lead the orchestra in two performances of Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa,” starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role.)

The last time the NSO approached concert opera was in 2019, but it was just a fleeting encounter — the second act of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

For the Noseda-curious, Friday’s concert represented a rare stateside opportunity to experience the operatic side of the conductor, a mode typically reserved for his post as general music director of Zurich Opera. Having just completed two rounds of an acclaimed “Ring” cycle in Zurich (which remain available as free streams on the Zurich Opera’s website through June 15), Noseda’s operatic chops have attracted international attention, and at the Kennedy Center, a wide-ranging audience: “The Wagnerites are all here,” I overheard someone remark from my seat. “Though I’m not sure why.” (The shade!)

For an opera so rife with betrayal, deception and jealousy, “Otello” on Friday was nothing but matches made in heaven: the NSO and a cast of talented singers; the chemistry and compatibility of the singers themselves; Noseda and Verdi (!). It was an evening of little surprises, high drama and big payoffs.

I wasn’t sure what to make of an unstaged “Otello,” but it was actually a keen selection — an opera that acquires new dimensions through a concert treatment. (And not just because one must die standing up.)

“Otello” is about as late Verdi as you can get. The composer’s penultimate opera premiered in 1887 and followed an extended retreat/intended retirement from opera. As such, it teems with pent-up musical ideas. Sans staging and lighting and costumes, the ideas become the architecture, the score becomes the set, and the psychological depth of Verdi’s music takes center stage — especially so under Noseda, who brought his reliable detail-forward approach to the music without abandoning any of the requisite bombast.

Thus, the opening tempest of “fearsome trumpets” atop a rumbling floor of bass and below the combined glow of the choirs was scenic and deeply satisfying. Ditto the way the storm seemed to part upon tenor Arsen Soghomonyan’s entrance as Otello — the music onstage alive with a kinetic presence that a pit couldn’t help but tamp. My notes from the third act — during which Noseda stoked Otello’s rage into a wildfire — are just a row of exclamation points.

Soghomonyan made a fabulous (if slightly slouchy) Otello — the unexpected heft of his tenor gradually (and then rapidly) fraying at the edges as his sanity slips and his proverbial cookie crumbles.

Soprano Erika Grimaldi’s Desdemona came alive as doom prevailed in the opera’s second half. A stunning “Piangea cantando nell’erma landa” showcased her diamond clarity; the “Ave Maria” that followed, her dramatic ease. Noseda’s gentle introduction of the Des-heavy fourth act — a beautiful passage of oboe, flute, piccolo and horn — had the impact of a full-on set change.

Noseda brought out not just the music but also the musicality of Iago’s machinations — the intricate, nearly Baroque designs of his deceptions. Or, when messing with Cassio, the sinister undercurrents beneath the frothy surface of their friendship. Sturdily sung — with impressively instant dislikability — by baritone Roman Burdenko, this was an Iago that sounded classic and canonical with a lurid confidence that felt fresh and contemporary, i.e., what we now call “toxic.” Noseda veiled Iago’s lies with innocent violins and sharpened Verdi’s hooks to make them linger in the memory like planted suspicions.

I loved mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano’s endearing Emilia, whose brief but arresting opportunities onstage made me forget this wasn’t a staging. And I was especially moved by Francesco Marsiglia’s Cassio, whose clean, clear tenor felt like a cunningly conscious foil for Soghomonyan’s — which felt appropriately perched on a precipice. Something about the forged gleam of his voice — like a hard-edged sword or a military medal — made his lousy treatment feel that much more unjust.

Whenever the chance was afforded, long ovations took over. And while they were triggered by individual arias, or the ends of acts, the energy behind them felt italicized, as though it wasn’t so much the performance earning the accolades, but the experience.

Concert opera is an excellent way to make opera happen more often, more accessibly and with a degree of musical magnification you might not otherwise get. What I heard on Friday was an orchestra well-suited to the demands of demanding opera, and an audience that wants more.

Opera in Concert: Noseda conducts Verdi’s Otello repeats Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Kennedy Center,

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