India Verdi: “Otello” “The Met: Live in HD” screening. Godrej Dance Academy Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, 24.11.2012 (JSM)
Otello: Johan Botha
Desdemona: Renée Fleming
Iago: Falk Struckmann
Cassio: Michael Fabiano
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Production: Elijah Moshinsky
Set Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Peter J. Hall
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Choreographer: Eleanor Fazan
“Othello” is surely the most conjugal of Shakespeare’s plays. The relationship between the Moor and his wife is its dramatic spine, made all the more evident in Verdi’s opera “Otello”. Herein, Arrigo Boito’s masterful libretto graphs this relationship through each of its four acts, starting with unmitigated love and ending in brutal murder.
Each act has at least one major scene between Otello and Desdemona; and it is up to the principal singers to bring their tragic destiny to operatic life. Watching the Met’s Live in HD presentation of the opera in Mumbai, it became all too apparent this relationship was dead on arrival, for there was little or no chemistry between Johan Botha’s Otello and Renée Fleming’s Desdemona.
Ms Fleming is, of course, well-known for her portrayal, starting with her career-making step-in as understudy in the same Met production, soon after its première in 1994. Her Otello then was Plácido Domingo; and their extraordinary partnership was documented for posterity in the DVD release of a telecast performance. Here we have Johan Botha partnering the diva in another broadcast, this time via HD to theaters all around the world, but charged with little or no electricity.
Much of the problem lies in Botha’s stolid, stock characterisation, with little of the psychological layers suggested by Domingo. Some may find Botha’s simplicity disarming, though many others would probably be irritated by his face-making and posturing, sometimes unintentionally hilarious in the manner of a B-movie monster-villain. Vocally, though, he is lyrical and utterly musical, notwithstanding the slight beat in the voice, with secure top notes almost making one forget the lack of squillo (most noticeable in his opening Esultate!) and sheer power associated with the role. This was unleashed only occasionally but to great effect; for example in the shout “quella vil cortigiana!” in the Act 3 duet.
However, in the same duet, it was Ms Fleming who had to shoulder virtually the entire burden of making the scene dramatically involving. Even so, Botha followed with a very moving account of the monologue Dio mi potevi, with scrupulous attention to the score, delivering much of it in a hushed monotone rather than resorting (like so many others, including Domingo) to showy melodrama. Not surprisingly, the highlight of his performance was the final Niun mi tema which was sung with aristocratic restraint; and almost left this reviewer with a lump in the throat.
Ms Fleming, on the other hand, gave a no-holds-barred performance; and occasionally it seemed she may have been trying too hard. Undoubtedly with age, her voice has lost some of its warmth and volume, though she can still float some ethereally lovely pianissimi. Her singing, as always, remains rooted in rock-solid technique and innate musicality; and her dramatic sensibilities have certainly strengthened over the years. As mentioned earlier, she was quite riveting in the crucial Act 3 duet; but her Willow Song was a little too “loud” and, for the most part, curiously unmoving.
Falk Struckmann seemed severely strained by Iago’s high tessitura, hectoring rather than singing his way through the part. Barking and snarling do not a characterisation make; and Mr. Struckmann resorted far too much and too often to such ungainly, extra-musical effects to make his points. Even so, his Credo ended with a thrilling top F, sustained well into the orchestral conclusion; and Era la notte had some interesting touches. His Drinking Song, however, was a near-disaster.
Semyon Bychkov was in the pit and offered a reading of hyper-clarity, with every semiquaver given its due. This robbed the performance of bite, vitality and visceral impact, which so much of “Otello” demands. The ensembles with chorus were the worst affected, in particular Fuoco di gioia! which was funereal instead of joyful. And the antics onstage during this scene could only be described as embarrassing.
Bychkov’s measured approach paid off in some of the more introspective passages like the introduction to Act 4; but he did a complete volte-face at the end of Act 2 for the Vengeance Duet, which was taken hell-for-leather and threatened to turn into a “runaway train”. The Met orchestra did the best they could, with some ravishing playing from the principal string and woodwind players.
Elijah Moshinsky’s venerable production has worn well, although on renewed acquaintance the many huge pillars seem to dwarf the action and cramp the stage, especially during the great finale of Act 3 where the chorus and supernumeraries are literally squeezed into the space between them. Even so, it is certainly beautiful to look at, aided by Duane Schuler’s shaded, saturnine lighting.
The HD screening at the Godrej Dance Theatre in Mumbai’s NCPA needed better adjustment of black-levels to allow more detail and definition in some of the darker scenes, which seemed a little washed-out. And the sound, despite an impressive array of equipment from B&W and Classé, was a huge disappointment.
The problem lies in the deployment of speakers in this horizontal shoe-box of an auditorium. Those carrying the musically all-important Front Left and Right signals are at opposite ends of the WIDE stage, embedded in the proscenium behind a perforated metal grille. As a result, the orchestra is virtually split into two; and high frequencies are severely muffled. The center-channel speaker is, however, correctly positioned behind the acoustically-transparent screen; and the anomalies in sound-quality become glaringly obvious when a singer’s voice crosses the soundstage from one side to the other, through the center.
Even so, being able to watch the latest offerings from the Met, in countries like India where opera isn’t regularly performed, is a welcome treat for music-lovers. In this, the Met’s “Live in HD” is a worthy initiative indeed.
Jiten S. Merchant