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Sarah Caldwell's 'Otello': leaving it to the singers

The theatrical possibilities in Verdi's "Otello" are countless -- from the opening raging storm to the final breath of a tragic hero whose suspicious nature destroyed his loved one and himself.

Sarah Caldwell had made her reputation as a theatrical stager of opera. And in this Opera Company of Boston production, James McCracken would be repeating his world- famous performance of the title role. Shirley Verrett would be tackling Desdemona for the first time.

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As it all turned out, Miss Caldwell's direction proved surpassingly reticent in theatrical gesture, inspiring none of her performers with particular energy, noticeable interaction, or characterizational insight. It was as if she said to one and all, "You know what to do," and left it at that.

Mr. McCracken, who turned in such a fine Radames in Caldwell's stunning "Aida" last season, seemed rather listless and vocally tenuous at the third of four performances. Often he was asked to execute an odd gesture or make a peculiar lunge that threw his timing off.

Miss Verrett, on the other hand, seemed almost constantly to be a singer in search of a character. She was handsomely costumed, looked radiantly beautiful in alabaster makeup and an auburn wig, and sang with more security and sopranoish strength than has been the case in recent seasons. Yet only in the fourth act did she make Desdemona come alive.

John Reardon was the Iago, hardly a role would have associated him with. Vocally the performance lacked amplitude and stamina, but historically his was one of the best-detailed character portrayals seen on a Caldwell stage in too long a time. The rest of the cast was not up to the roles assigned, from Roelof Oostwoud's inadequate Cassio through to Fred Teschler's woolly Lodovico.

The chorus sounded thin. A wind machine appears to have replaced the organ pedal tone Verdi requested in the opening pages. The Herbert Senn and Helen Pond sets were refreshingly bright, Cypriot-Moorish.

The Alfredo Zedda performing edition was used, and in place of the traditional finale to the third act, the alternate Verdi wrote for the Paris Opera was offered. It differs in length, in the harmonic accompaniment to the basic line, and in texture. We can actually hear and follow all the plotting Iago initiates at this point, and the responses to his machinations.

But that clarity is at the expense of an insistent undertow that inexorably swells on arched lines to a shattering climax. Though the standard finale is the more dramatically compelling, it is wonderful to hear the alternate music -- and only Miss Caldwell seems interested in giving her audiences this kind of musical alternative.

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