Royal Opera’s Otello is a Triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Opera / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 12.7.2012. (JPr)

Aleksandrs Antonenko As Otello, Anja Harteros As Desdemona.Credit Catherine Ashmore

Saving the best for last the Royal Opera’s season – that in the opinion of many has had its share of disappointments – ended on a definite high with perhaps one of the best musical performances at Covent Garden for several years. That this opera should be Otello, believed to be almost unstageable in these vocally-straitened times, heightens the achievement. It does full credit to the World Shakespeare Festival and the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad to which this revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 25-year-old staging has been associated.

After Aida and his Requiem, Verdi could not be enticed back into the theatre from the country estate that his triumphs had afforded him. Several years elapsed before Otello and when he eventually composed it he used far richer instrumentation than in any of his earlier works: Otello is very nearly a music-drama, though clearly isn’t one. When Otello is compared to Verdi’s earlier compositions, he can seem somewhat Wagnerian, though compared to Wagner he still remains what he actually is … characteristically Italian. Actually the connection maybe closer because who can hear those off-stage fanfares in Act III without recalling similar moments in Wagner’s Lohengrin?

How did it come to be written? Well, Verdi’s publisher Giulio Ricordi encouraged Arrigo Boito, one of the most talented figures working in Italian opera at that time, to finish an Otello libretto and eventually Verdi was persuaded to work on it with him. There was much discussion over different drafts, they cut out entire parts of Shakespeare’s play (primarily the first act), changed lines, altered the use or motivation of characters, such as including women in the drinking scene and having Jago (as in the opera) give voice to Boito’s own metaphysical beliefs in his Act II Credo. Finally they had to decide on the title for the opera as Verdi had originally wanted to call it Jago but in a letter in 1886 to Boito, the composer wrote: ‘It’s true that [Iago] is the demon who sets everything in motion: but it is Othello who acts: he loves, is jealous, kills and is killed. For my part I would find it hypocritical not to call it Otello’.

A new production of Otello is a rare event, yet Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, and a few others, are staples of the repertoire. Rigoletto was composed 36 years before Otello and 42 years before Verdi’s final masterpiece Falstaff which is also fairly seldom performed. Of course, the rarity of Otello performances in the UK will be due to other reasons these days such as the libretto’s racism and the un-PC possibility of having to put make-up on a white singer to hint, at least, that he is supposed to be a Moor. The translation shows the opera still contains contentious lines such as, ‘Desdemona will soon tire of that savage’s embrace’ and Otello asking Desdemona ‘Is it perhaps my race?’ In the printed programme René Weis addresses the issue of ‘Olivier’s famous blackface Othello film in 1965’ noting that it ‘caused a stir not for its racial stereotyping but for the great actor’s chameleon-like ability to project a powerful black man, through deepening his voice and by adopting a special gait that was presumably meant to conjure up blackness while in fact tilting towards caricature.’ Elijah Moshinsky – here returning to oversee this revival – clearly allows his Otello, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko to mimic Olivier in looks and prowling, leonine, menace … though he does have make-up that is just a shade lighter.

What can be done with Otello apart from perhaps update it so he becomes a US President or an Afghani warlord? So with an opera that is only brought back infrequently – if it isn’t broke then don’t fix it. Timothy O’Brien solidly three-dimensional set (atmospherically lit by Robert Bryan) is framed by green Corinthian columns inspired by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, a chequered floor familiar from Italian churches and two imposing Venetian images are seen (a Byzantine Crucifix and Tintoretto’s Deposition). The latter provides the religious backdrop for Iago’s Act II Credo in un Dio crudel – probably giving voice as well to Verdi’s own atheism – and Desdemona’s Act IV prayer.

I first saw Otello in 1980 at Covent Garden in the old Peter Potter/Georges Wakhevitch production with Plácido Domingo (Otello), Margaret Price (Desdemona) and Silvano Carroli (Iago) conducted by Carlos Kleiber. I also saw one of the first performances of this production when it was new in January 1987 again with Kleiber and Domingo but then joined by Katia Ricciarelli and Justino Díaz. It was one of those evening that attains more legendary status as the years go by and something that singers of the current generation should not be expected to eclipse. However, this exceptionally strongly cast revival for Verdi’s setting of Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor general driven to madness and murder of his innocent wife Desdemona because of the wiles of the evil Iago, remains an outstanding achievement.

I cannot agree with some other commentators that Aleksandrs Antonenko has an Italianate sound because it lacks some of the burnished sheen, warmth and subtlety necessary but what power, stamina and dramatic heft he does have at his command as his opening entrance for a stentorian – yet brilliant – Esultate! revealed. Unlike the sets, his acting as Otello was just a little one-dimensional but he sang compellingly throughout and superbly rose to the challenge of Niun mi tema, now finding more emotional nuance than before and making very obvious the personal impact of everything he has caused to happen. There was just a hint that he was almost allowing the emotions of the scene to get to his voice but this reservation quickly passed and so convincing did he become that I almost believed he might have throttled his Desdemona.

After some well publicised cancellations Anja Harteros’ return to Covent Garden as the doomed Princess Diana-like Desdemona was simply sensational. The German soprano has a burnished liricospinto instrument with a stunning upper range. She brought refined tone and deep feeling to the role; her Willow Song was heart-breaking, the Ave Maria beautifully rendered and nearly unbearably poignant due to Harteros’s exquisitely controlled pianissimos. I have only heard Renata Telbaldi on CD but Harteros live sounded her equal. (I rarely give so much praise but she deserves it.) Most importantly from their very tender moonlit Act I duet to her character’s tragic denouement I believed she loved Otello and he once love her.

As Iago, Lucio Gallo (one of only two Italians in the cast) was extraordinarily charismatic but perhaps not villainous enough. The veteran baritone’s voice perhaps now lacks the dark malevolence the role requires for the oath-taking duet Si, pel ciel and the Credo; however he excelled at being convincingly manipulative employing his head voice to evil, odious and wheedling effect.

The only other Italian amongst the principals, Antonio Poli was a suitably handsome sounding Cassio. Jette Parker Young Artist Hanna Hipp brought some dramatic intensity to the few lines Verdi gives Emilia and two of her colleagues Jihoon Kim and Ji Hyun Kim were equally as good as Montano and Roderigo. Brindley Sherratt brought his sonorous bass-baritone to the small role of the Venetian ambassador Lodovico and Bryan Secombe rounded out the outstanding cast as a strong Herald. The Chorus’s involvement is mostly over after Act I and directed by Renato Balsadonna they met their challenges with dramatic involvement, impeccable ensemble singing, forthright tone and impeccable diction.

While Antonio Pappano fails to convince as a maestro capable of the entire repertoire he tackles, Otello seems an opera he was born to conduct. He had complete command and identification with the music that was apparent throughout. Some members of the orchestra were in the pit long before the start of the opera and that practising paid dividends with the tremendously thrilling storm whipped up by Verdi for the opera’s memorable opening. What followed was equally good; the swaggering brindisi, the sensual love scene and the spine-tingling tension of the finale being the other high points. Even though there was only one interval, the opera went by in a flash and rarely will one experience again Verdi’s dramatic moments and big choruses performed with such abandon, bravura brilliance and emotional impact. He was well supported by his superb musicians, particularly memorable was the harp solo that closed Act I; the majestic brass during Otello’s Act II farewell to glory (Ora e per sempre addio); the almost conspiratorial sounds of the bassoons underpinning Iago disingenuously counselling Otello against jealousy; and the lamenting cor anglais that ushered in the last act.

Jim Pritchard

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