Wednesday’s well-sold opening of Othello was received with snowballing enthusiasm: the Joffrey’s first round of bows got a generous helping of whoops and hollers, but by the third curtain call (and Lar Lubovitch’s surprise appearance), the crowd was on its feet yelling “Bravo!”
All the ingredients that usually lead an audience to that response — hey, I guess it was great! — are there: it feels about half as long as its three acts and two-plus hours, and the George Tsypin scenery and Ann Hould-Ward costumes, production originals on loan from ABT and SFB, look like a million bucks (making their 600-grand budget a bargain). Lubovitch’s choreography ricochets between epic gestures and showy lifts without ever getting stuck between and its male leads, while not on the same page, were having a blast. Where the cracks show, besides in Tsypin’s ice-sculpturesque pillars and panels, is in Lubovitch’s trouble deciding how much story to tell and how to tell it. April Daly’s Desdemona, beautiful legs and feet and a furrowed brow where a character should’ve been, didn’t help.
Program notes tell us the choreographer “does not seek to create a precise telling…but rather to relate the legend of the Moor through a passage of images in movement which, over time, accumulate to capture the essence of the characters and their story.” Sounds great in theory, but by the third act we’re a stone’s throw from pantomime — the idea of an Othello-as-tone-poem, it seems, went the way of the Turkish fleet. And it’s too bad, because Lubovitch can tug a narrative fragment in all kinds of directions in dances where no plot is involved; a true abstraction of Shakespeare’s tragedy, perhaps à la Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, is something he’s shown elsewhere he has the creative tools for.
Elliot Goldenthal’s orginal score does fulfill the spirit of the artist’s statement: toward the end of the first act, a crowd gathered for Othello (Fabrice Calmels, delivering on the billboard beefcake) and Desdemona’s wedding retreats behind Iago (Matthew Adamczyk), as does all orchestration besides a looping braid of flutes. Like the needle reaching the end of a record, the obsessive repetition as accompaniment to Iago’s solo effectively suggests the trap of his fixation. Throughout the ballet, Goldenthal’s grab-bag of sounds and styles — sleazy saxophone lines in the final scene had me expecting a trench-coated detective from a 1940s radio play — toy with era and reference as much as the period-suggesting design and linear direction don’t.
Although a bit over the top, Calmels gives Othello his all — it was nice to see a Joffrey lead take something and run with it for a change. Valerie Robin as Emilia is painfully submissive and in over her head, which feels like a faithful interpretation, and while his Iago knows only one note, Adamczyk hits and sustains it. Act II, a swirling setpiece of plot points, ensembles, duets and trios, is by far the choreography’s most successful venture and, in Allison Walsh’s soubrette Bianca, the location of its finest dancing. It doesn’t seem like a mistake to remount this production, I just wish it had cleared the bar instead of grazing it.
Othello runs through October 25 at the Auditorium Theatre; click here for details.