Othello, Argyle Works, Birmingham

Total Immersion: George Crumb, Barbican Hall, London

Ronald Samm signals the end of blacking-up to sing Othello, while a celebration fails to do justice to George Crumb

Of Graham Vick's site-specific productions for Birmingham Opera Company, Othello is the most austere. There are no propaganda posters (Idomeneo), no passport controls (Ulysses), no pine coffins or funeral parties (Don Giovanni), no giant Kewpie dolls (La traviata). Samal Blak's set designs are restricted to a raised platform and walkway, with little else but a thick red carpet and the blinding glare of search lights to transform the former factory into a military compound, mosque and bedroom. Having built a 250-strong community of local singers, actors and dancers and developed an ensemble company of soloists, it is as though Vick is challenging his audience, testing what we have learnt.

As with previous BOC productions, you have to move on command. (Three steps to the right, one to the left, in the dance celebrating Othello's victory.) Are we in Venice? Modern Birmingham? The tinderbox industrial suburb that Malcolm X addressed in 1965? Or in Fort Hood? Along with socks (no shoes allowed), each audience member is provided with a single black glove for the Black Power salute, while the symbolism of Desdemona's handkerchief is extended in the menacing, men-only jingling of morris (i.e. Moorish) dance, the brief Act IV prelude in which some women use scarves to tease their lovers and others are made to wear the niqab, and in the heroine's death. Strangled by her husband with her wedding veil, Desdemona is the victim of an honour killing.



Much has been made of the casting of Ronald Samm as Othello, yet the primary effect is to eliminate the distraction of a caucasian tenor in bad make-up and refine the focus on one man's fall to perdition. The secondary effect is to emphasise Desdemona's guileless delight in her husband, and her fatal inability to comprehend his feelings of displacement. She may be colour-blind but he is not, and neither is Iago (the magnificent Keel Watson): another first for a black British singer and one that hints at the tensions between West Indian and African communities in his contempt for the devout Moor.



As Iago, Watson's ability to turn the face of loyalty and good humour into one of cool, merciless hatred is never overplayed, never crude, almost conversational in his Credo. As Othello unravels, he exchanges his Western military uniform for a tunic and skull cap, praying to Allah as the chorus hail "the Lion of Venice". Samm's hero may not be the most beautifully sung or athletic, but his trajectory into jealous mania is expertly traced. I'd hazard a guess that Forest Whitaker's Idi Amin might be the source for his abrupt shifts from charm and poise into violence and paranoia, lunging at the chorus like a wounded beast.



Though the choruses are compromised by the movement direction, their commitment and vivacity is thrilling. Choreographer Ron Howell makes space for parallel interpretations of the rarely played ballet sequence, uniting morris, bhangra, hip hop and break dancers in the final bars. Robert Anderson (Lodovico), Antonia Sotgiu (Amelia), Joseph Guyton (Cassio), Byron Jackson (Montano) and Adrian Dwyer (Roderigo) offer spirited support, while Stephanie Corley's Desdemona is intensely, sweetly moving: an innocent in a guilty world. Aided by Stephen Barlow's lyrical reading of Verdi's score, her Willow Song and Ave Maria are spell-binding: a loving submission delivered with trembling intimacy across the vast space. This is rough, vibrant, provocative art from a passionate company. And if we have to wait a few more years for an ideal Othello, Samm, Vick and Watson have exposed the tradition of blacked-up singers as outmoded and unnecessary.



At around the time Malcolm X visited Smethwick, a mild-mannered composer from West Virginia discovered the poetry of Lorca. Discontented with his early work, George Crumb found his voice in that of the Spanish writer: a secretive, alert timbre that informs the very best of his work. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Total Immersion composer portrait was unflatteringly skewed by the inclusion of Crumb's three orchestral pieces, Star-Child (1977), Echoes of Time and the River (1967) and A Haunted Landscape (1984).



Crumb's genius is in chamber music, in the off-beat humour of Mundus Canis and the stealthy beauty of Music for a Summer Evening, performed in David Starobin's affectionate documentary, George Crumb: 'Bad Dog!'. In a large canvas, his wit and detail is lost to what could be termed modishness. Scored for Cambodian, Japanese, Brazilian and Caribbean percussion, with choreographed movements for woodwind and brass, Echoes has aged particularly badly, while the jewel-like piano suites played by Joanna MacGregor – A Little Suite for Christmas (1979) and Makrokosmos Volume I (1972) – are timelessly enchanting. Echoed in the shawm-like ululations of the oboe, the sour dance of the mandolin and the dusty clack of Hunan stones, soprano Anna Patalong's command of Lorca's strident and sensual lyrics in Guildhall New Music Ensemble's performance of Ancient Voices of Children (1970) was astonishing, the music utterly compelling.



'Othello': (0844 477 1000) to 19 Dec

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