Close-ups Do No Favours in Met Live Otello

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Semyon Bychkov. (conductor). Production by Elijah Moshinsky, directed for Met Live in HD 2012/13 by Barbara Willis Sweete  and broadcast to the Barbican Cinema, London, 27.10.2012. (JPr)

Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera and Mary Altaffer

Verdi’s Otello, the second opera of the new Met Live season, is a challenge for any opera house. Indeed as we were informed these pre-Cyclone Sandy performances had already suffered from losing its planned Otello because of illness for the previous three and Johan Botha was just returning for this cinema broadcast, the last of his scheduled ones this season. He was reminded of this fact by backstage interviewer, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, as soon as he came offstage after the demanding Act II and his almost monosyllabic responses suggested he perhaps had not yet fully recovered physically, even though vocally he seemed in reasonable shape. He is a giant of a man and relatively immobile and the direction for cinema did not do him – or any of his other colleagues for that matter – many favours by concentrating so much on close-ups. For not only was he clearly under considerable stress but it highlighted his blackface makeup complete – with afro hairdo – that would not be seen on any stage in this country. It is a surprise that with an African-American President that the US still finds this acceptable. (Readers here in the UK will remember the great comedian, Ronnie Barker, once blacking-up as a female soul singer and performing ‘Big Momma’ on TV during a Top of the Pops skit. Though not one of light entertainment’s finest moments, the often wide-eyed Botha looked frighteningly like Barker did then!)

Knowing Falk Struckmann from his Wagner roles I was surprised how wonderful he was as an Italian baritone. He reminded me of Piero Cappuccilli of a previous generation whose Iago was also a rather broadly-painted, unsubtle, portrayal if I remember. The camera seemed always on him when he was on stage and this made him dominate the proceedings even more than his manipulative character should do. His slightly gruff voice was dark and portentous and he sang everything with bared fangs like some sort of predatory vampire. There was a total lack of insouciance from his Iago that, truth be told, made him seem more like Hunding from Die Walküre – but his ‘Credo’ sounded wonderfully chilling.

Renée Fleming also suffered from too many unflattering close-ups that revealed that her Desdemona is now more matronly than perhaps it should be. This – like the issues with Botha and Struckmann – would not be so evident in the theatre but was hugely magnified by the HD cinema broadcast. She has sung the role 19 times at the Met and was perhaps the more dramatically engaged of the three principals. Ms Fleming acted her character’s plight convincingly, especially her confusion over Otello’s accusations, her public humiliation and acceptance at the end that it will be her last evening alive. I suspect the soprano’s voice is not what it was and that the broadcast sound might have masked this. Nevertheless, I am sure the purity of tone and plangency she brought to her ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’ was totally genuine despite the conductor, Semyon Bychkov, accompanying her so slowly with the string playing that I almost fell asleep myself! If he never seemed a true warrior Botha was at his best as a somewhat reluctant murderer in the final act and if he had harnessed his vocal resources earlier, it was worth it for a reflective, nuanced and very emotional ‘Niun mi tema’.

Valiantly supporting the heavily-featured triumvirate, amongst others, were Michael Fabiano’s youthful Cassio, Renée Tatum’s sympathetic Emilia, the veteran James Morris as a paternal Ludovico and Donald Palumbo’s well-schooled and enthusiastic chorus. The orchestra under one of the world’s finest conductors, Maestro Bychkov, sounded wonderful and he whipped up a credible storm at the start and his reading was suitably expressive right through to the deep pathos of the opera’s ending.

This venerable 1994 Elijah Moshinsky Otello production with monumental set designs by Michael Yeargan and heavy costumes by Peter J. Hall postdates his 1987 version for the Royal Opera with which it shares many of its three-dimensional features although the Met stage clearly has more room for some taller columns, larger Renaissance paintings or symbols and Canaletto-like Venetian perspective. Once again the cinema direction did not always do full justice to the grandeur of the Verdi masterpiece’s setting often relying too much on soap opera intimacy.


Jim Pritchard


Check out your local cinema listings as the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2012-13 season continues.