Otello: An Authentic Musical Monument, Successfully Performed

SpainSpain  G. Verdi, Otello:  Comunitat Valenciana’s  Orchestra, Chorus Generalitat Valenciana, Zubin Mehta (Conductor), Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts, 1.6.2013 (JMI)New Production

Otello: Gregory Kunde
Desdemona: Maria Agresta
Iago: Carlos Álvarez
Cassio: Marcelo Puente
Ludovico: Mischa Schelomianski
Roderigo: Mario Cerdá
Montano: Seung Pil Choi

Direction: Davide Livermore
Sets: Davide Livermore
Costumes: Marianna Fracasso & Davide Livermore
Lighting: Davide Livermore

Otello; photo credit: Tato Baeza
Otello; photo credit: Tato Baeza

The economic and social crisis we are living with is devastating for opera, and Valencia is no exception but rather the opposite. The Mediterranean Festival, held in recent years during the month of June, has suffered serious cuts this year to the point where there is only one opera in the program. I must say that it is one of the most demanding operas and one of the most  appreciated by opera lovers, so that the trip to Valencia was a must not only for this reviewer, but also for Queen Sofia, who also attended the performance.

Although it may sound like a boutade, I believe that one of the greatest contributions of Richard Wagner to the world of music in general, and to opera in particular, is in having shown the way for the elderly Verdi to write this absolute masterpiece. I do not want to be misunderstood, since as a composer Verdi did not need  to imitate anyone to be himself. However, such is the change that Otello brings after his previous works that  I wonder if this could have happened without Wagner and his operatic revolution. Otello is an authentic musical monument that needs certain conditions to be successfully performed and  Valencia largely achieved these.

There were several attractive points in this performance. First, there was the presence of Zubin Mehta on the podium, having under his baton the outstanding Palau orchestra. To this I should add the presence of Gregory Kunde as the Moor of Venice,  despite doubts beforehand regarding his suitability to this dramatic role; then there was the return of Carlos Alvarez, facing his first major Verdian role after his long illness; and finally the presence of Maria Agresta as Desdemona, one of the emerging sopranos of recent times.

As the cherry on the cake we had a new production. Not everything worked to perfection, but there were more than enough reasons to be happy.

Let’s start with the musical direction by Zubin Mehta, who always takes the podium at the Palau de Les Arts during the Mediterranean Festival. Zubin Mehta gave an excellent reading of Otello’s score. His conducting was always brilliant and even spectacular, maybe it was sometimes somewhat superficial, as can happen with his performances, but the emotion was all there in the last act, which was one of the best I have heard in years. This last act was worth many operas and many festivals. Time will pass and I will keep remembering it. If anyone knows the potential of this Orchestra it’s him and he proved it from the very beginning. The communion between orchestra and conductor  worked to perfection – showing again that when this orchestra is led by an exceptional maestro, it is the best in the country.

On top of this, there was also an excellent performance from the chorus.

Following the cancellation of Aleksandar Antonenko, Gregory Kunde was the new Otello and I found his presence particularly interesting, given his vocal evolution in recent years. Kunde’s voice is not one which would normally be associated with the character of Otello; his timbre is lighter than we are used to,  but this does not prevent the voice from filling the large room of the Palau de Les Arts. It is not yet a year since he debuted in the character and he did it in the rather small La Fenice. I wasn’t sure how his tenor could work in a larger house, but the doubts are now gone with Gregory Kunde making an excellent Otello. The surprises started with  “Essultate” which was brilliant and powerful and from then on Mr. Kunde always sang and acted in a most convincing way. His biggest handicap is that his low notes are too weak, but that is more than offset by his many virtues.

The case of Gregory Kunde and his vocal evolution is worth studying, because in a few years he has gone from being a tenor identified with Rossini and Mozart, to cope successfully with the great Verdi roles. Unfortunately, the success has come rather late, since he is already 59 and he only received recognition about five years ago. Gregory Kunde is a great artist and there has been always a shortage of them.

Maria Agresta was Desdemona, following her successful debut here  last year as Leonora in Il Trovatore. She is one of the most interesting young sopranos of recent years and to make the final leap to stardom she will only need to develop a more personal timbre. (She reminds me of another great soprano, Krassimira Stoyanova). Maria Agresta is an excellent singer and she gave us a most moving  last act, superbly sung. Her  Willow Song and Ave Maria were truly magical and she deserved her triumph. I hope she takes good care of her repertoire and that we will enjoy her artistry for a long time.

Carlos Alvarez was facing his first Verdi role after his comeback just a year and a half ago. His interpretation of Iago opens the door to hope, as he seems vocally recovered, although he is not yet the Carlos Alvarez of his years of glory. He started quite well in the first act, following a good Credo with some problems at the top. The voice did not  run always easily, staying a little backwards some times. Overall, it seemed to me a very promising performance. He was deeply moved at the final bows.

In the secondary characters Marcelo Puente, in the character of Cassio, should be mentioned. His is a wide instrument, one that is not too appealing. Mischa Schelomianski left something to be desired as Ludovico. Cristina  Faus was good as Emilia.

Finally, the stage production was a well suited complement to an excellent Otello. Davide Livermore offered a rather minimalist stage, well suited  to narrate the drama – as should be the first duty of any stage director. The stage offered a helicoidal  space, lifted at the back, with corridors or stairs around it. In the center there was a round platform, which was lifted at the key moments of the opera. There was no alteration to the period in which the opera was set, but the costumes were not very appealing. There were excellent marine video projections, particularly in the opening scene.

The Palau de Les Arts was almost sold out. The audience showed their enthusiasm during the performance and at the final bows, with cheers for the three main protagonists and Zubin Mehta. The final applause lasted no less than 11 minutes and it could have been more, since the curtain came down when the intensity of applause was still quite high.


José Mª. Irurzun