Anja Harteros, a Perfect Desdemona, but Not a Perfect Otello

GermanyGermany Verdi: Otello, Bayerische Staatsoper’s Orchestra and Chorus, Paolo Carignani (conductor), Munich Nationaltheater, 16.7.2013 (JMI)

Production Bayerische Staatsoper
Direction: Francesca Zambello
Sets and costumes: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin

Otello: Johan Botha
Desdemona: Anja Harteros
Iago: Claudio Sgura
Cassio: Pavol Breslik
Ludovico: Tareq Nazmi
Emilia: Monika Bohinec
Rodrigo: Francesco Petrozzi
Montano: Goran Juric

There has been a run of outstanding opera performances in Munich this season, but whether due to a lack of rehearsal or other reasons, this Otello was largely dissatisfying. It was marked by a stage production mainly devoid of interest, uninspired musical direction, and voices that in some cases offered more noise than true singing. Fortunately, Anja Harteros sang Desdemona, and her performance made up for much of the disappointment.

I didn’t find this production by Francesca Zambello, which premiered in 1999 as a vehicle for José Cura (accompanied by Barbara Frittoli), persuasive. There is a single set composed of metal ramps, which seems appropriate in Act I but later becomes rather unconvincing and boring. The costumes were bright and quite attractive, except in Act III where Otello looked more like a hotel doorman than a governor of Cyprus. The stage direction was not what I have come to expect from Zambello, particularly in the crowd scenes where she is usually at her best. But overall the story was told well, and it had some interesting details, as in the opening of Act II. Zambello put Bianca on stage, a perfect introduction to the following intervention by Iago as he tries to bring Cassio into his plot. In general, the staging worked better in the exterior scenes than in the more intimate ones.

Paolo Carignani’s conducting was a very different experience from his direction at Il Trovatore. There were few nuances and an excess of volume from the pit. The emotion did not surface until the last act, and that was thanks to an extraordinary Desdemona. The orchestra showed great class, but Maestro Carignani didn’t allow us to enjoy their sound as in past days. The choir was powerful yet refined and with fresh voices, including the kinderchor in the second act.

Johan Botha has possibly the best-suited voice today for Otello. His power, bright timbre and good extension are excellent. But on top of a strong voice Otello also requires singing and the need to create a difficult character on stage. In this regard Botha fell short: the only moment of emotion came in his final Niun mi tema. He produced many brilliant and powerful notes, but singing is something else. If Botha’s voice were combined with Gregory Kunde’s singing we would have a definitive Otello.

The great singing of the evening came from Anja Harteros, a perfect Desdemona. In her big scene she evinced sublime and refined singing together with outstanding emotion. Anja Harteros’s performances of Leonora and Desdemona left me with an unforgettable souvenir of Munich. She is an exceptional soprano, in her prime and with full mastery of her voice − one of those singers who appear only every few years.

The performance of Claudio Sgura as Iago was a disappointment. Iago’s character is complicated and nuanced, but Sgura’s singing was too monotonous to be credible. I think he needs to mature into this role.

Pavol Breslik’s presence as Cassio was a luxury that only theaters such as Munich can offer.

Once again the Nationaltheater was sold out. The audience was much cooler than usual in the first half of the opera, but at the final bows there were sound cheers, particularly for Anja Harteros but for Johan Botha as well.

José Mª Irurzun