Satisfying Otello Despite the Staging

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Giuseppe Verdi. Otello (1887) Sung in Italian with titles in English: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North / Richard Farnes (conductor), The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays. 12-16.3.2013.(RJF)

Otello: Ronald Samm
Desdemona: Elena Kelessidi
Iago: David Kempster
Cassio: Michael Wade Lee
Roderigo: Christopher Turner
Emilia: Ann Taylor

I am no great fan of producer concepts, Regietheater or, even worse, changes of venue and time frame. Such productions, along with minimalism, are the rage in Germany and its neighbours and seem to have spread like a virus to Britain dependant on heavy subsidy. As English National Opera are discovering, with an increase in deficit and declining audiences people are not willing to sit and pay good money to see the problems of the Middle East, or wherever, paraded as a front for sublime music. It’s fine for administrators to talk about challenging audiences, but it may be too late when it dawns that people pay their spare money to be entertained and not challenged. This Otello changed both venue and time. However, I am an admirer of Tim Albery as a producer; he has always managed to bring the crux of the story into full light despite the settings he inflicts on himself with the aid of his set designer – or so I thought until this setting. When the curtain opened to reveal what looked likes the refectory of a prison I had serious doubts. Updated to the 1950s with Iago and the sailors in navy uniforms, with caps carrying the insignia of their rank, and the women in A line skirts, three inches below the knee, I just wished that all concerned had spent a fraction of the time that the seventy odd year old Verdi spent on his realisation, along with his librettist Boito, on their conception of Shakespeare.

Premiered at La Scala in February 1887, Otello was Verdi’s first totally new operatic composition since Aida premiered in 1871. It is not that he had been idle. His Requiem for Manzoni had followed in 1874 and he travelled widely in Europe conducting his works. His friends among the Milan literati, often meeting at the salon of Verdi’s friend, the Countess Maffei, thought he had more operatic composition within him despite being in his seventh decade and although he protested to her that “the account was settled”. A number of them quietly plotted to tempt him, his knowledge and love of Shakespeare being paramount in their thoughts. With the aid of a dinner invitation from Verdi’s wife, who was in on the plot, his publisher, Ricordi, and the conductor Faccio, broached the subject with the great man with Boito’s name being mentioned as librettist. The next day Boito was brought to see Verdi and three days later he returned with a detailed scenario; quick work unless there had been prior manoeuvring! Verdi liked it but would not commit himself and was to prevaricate on the chocolate theme, as it was called, for some time even encouraging Boito to convert his synopsis into verse with the words “it will always be good for you, for me, or for someone else”. He would not commit himself to compose the work but revised Simon Boccanegraof 1857, with additions by Boito, which was acclaimed in 1881. But his conception of Otello involved greater, and significantly different, orchestralcomplexity compared to Aida (1871) and Don Carlos (1867), its immediate operatic predecessors, and marks a major compositional movement from him from his previous aria, duet and chorus scene to a more fluent, smoother transition from one event to the next.In his conception Verdi was greatly aided by Boito’s tautlibretto that reduced Shakespeare’s Otello by six sevenths, but without loosing its essence of the destruction of the erstwhile hero by the genie of jealousy aided by the machinations of Iago. Boito dispensed with Shakespeare’s Venice act and focussed the whole of the action in Cyprus.

I stress the time Verdi spent on the music, because any possibility of a successful performance depends as much on the orchestral contribution as on finding a tenor capable of mastering the title role’s considerable vocal demands. There is no other opera that opens with the orchestral impact as Verdi’s Otello as the populace await the outcome of the arrival of Otello’s storm tossed ship safely into port and his fiercely dramatic and exclamatory Esultate. Within minutes I was worried. The visual impact of the set seemed to be married to a lack of vitality and drama in Richard Farnes’ orchestra and the normally vibrant Opera North chorus. Thankfully, as the opera preceded, Farnes, along with the orchestra and chorus got back on form and by the end I was happy that Verdi’s orchestration had been realised in the service of the drama.

Leslie Travers, Albery’s set and costume designer, certainly makes the producer work hard. The costumes being updated to the 1950’s is manageable; the set is not. Its pathetic Act 2 garden scene with one tree and the backs of the movable set visible, like those of a lego building, but with less pleasing aspect on the eye, are a visual abomination. In these surroundings the arrival of the Venetian ambassador in Act 3, with no attempt at pomp befitting the music and plot, is another visual aberration. Likewise the last act bedroom scene looking more like a cell than a lady’s boudoir, maybe it was the condemned cell of the prison?

Somehow out of this visual miasma Albery persuades his singers to give a worthwhile performance and often significantly more that that. Apologies were offered for Ronald Samm, in the title role, and Elena Kelessidi as Desdemona, who were suffering from colds. Samm’s voice was a little dry at times and lacking in tonal variety. That being said he got the demanding notes out and created a suitably tortured disintegrating hero. As his wife, and victim of his jealousy, Elena Kelessidi seemed miscast as Desdemona. While the likes of Mirella Freni stretched her lyric soprano to give a convincing portrayal at Salzburg under Karajan those years ago, Kelsessidi had not the tonal variety or vocal strength at her disposal. Even allowing for indisposition hers was very much that of an over stretched Gilda.

As Iago, David Kempster strutted and prowled round the stage as though he were the Lion of Venice. His Credo, an inclusion that owes everything to Boito and nothing to Shakespeare, was outstanding vocally as it was histrionically fearsome. One realised that this particular Otello, was a cub in the scheming of this plot. With the advantage of his physical stature, actually enhanced by the costume, Kempster’s Iago was overpowering in its impact. As Cassio, one of the men Iago dupes, Michael Wade Lee sang with a light but clear tenor voice and acted his drunken scene with conviction. As Roderigo, Christopher Turner complete with spectacles looked a bit of a nerd. As usual, Ann Taylor gave a full characterised and sung performance as Emilia.

The most recent past performance of Otello in Manchester was a concert performance to mark Gianandrea Noseda’s final concert as Musical Director of the BBC Philharmonic after a near ten years association. The Orchestra and Choir were more overwhelming than their Opera North counterparts in the opening, uncluttered with Mrs Mopps cleaning the floor, I ask you! Despite a less than adequate eponymous anti hero, a saturnine scheming Iago who semi spoke his role, impressively, and a Desdemona who was up to the demands in terms of heft and tone and in the more amenable acoustic of Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall (see review) I left the hall feeling that Verdi had been well served. That feeling was matched in this performance, despite the staging. This was thanks to the Richard Farnes and the orchestra, at least once past that underpowered opening, and the portrayal of Iago and Otello. My wife and I left the theatre satisfied that, at least musically, Verdi’s creation of his mid seventies, and for which every lover of the master of Italian opera will ever be thankful, had received its due.

Further performances at Theatre Royal, Nottingham on Wednesday March 20th and

Saturday March 23rd. Otello.

Robert J Farr