Dark Drama in Stockholm’s New Otello

 Verdi, Otello. Soloists, Royal Stockholm Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Alexander Vedernikov (conductor). Royal Stockholm Opera. 14.3.2015, Premiere. (GF)

Otello: Kristian Benedikt
Desdemona: Malin Byström
Iago: Claudio Sgura
Emilia: Susann Végh
Cassio: Allan Clayton
Roderigo: Daniel Ralphsson
Lodovico: Michael Schmidberger
Montano / A Herald: Kristian Flor
A dancer: Chiara Vinci

Direction: David Alden
Choreography: Maxine Braham
Sets, masks and costumes: Jon Morrell
Lighting design: Adam Silverman

A co-production with English National Opera, London and Teatro Real, Madrid


The last couple of days before the premiere became hectic and nervous due to two cases of illness among the soloists and substitutes had to be tracked down and flown in – one of them arriving just two hours before kick-off. But all this turbulence didn’t affect the performance negatively, as far as could be seen from the audience. Honestly speaking there was very little to be seen from the audience. The keyword for this production could be spelled Spartan. A basically empty stage, sparsely lit with dramatic gigantic shadows emphasizing Iago’s dominating presence, drab dark colours, even Desdemona’s bed in the last act was rationalized. The advantage was that focus was on the drama, the conflicts. And we were treated to some sharply etched portraits: Iago possibly more demonic and evil than ever before, Otello a roaring lion whose world is falling in pieces and Desdemona noble and dignified in the midst of the gushes of emotion. Neither she nor Otello can understand what forces are governing the developments, while Iago is the supreme ruler, the director who knows exactly what the next move will be. He is also present in the background, like a Mephistopheles, for instance during the love duet in act I. In the margin poor Cassio is an easy-to-manipulate hot-head (Allan Clayton was in the ENO production last year as well) while Daniel Ralphsson is a wheedling Roderigo in while dandy suit.

 For once Otello is not a black man since the conflict has nothing to do with racism, says David Alden. In Shakespeare’s play there are plenty of racist epithets but Boito removed most of them in his libretto. What we also know from Shakespeare is that Otello converted from Islam to Christianity to be able to marry Desdemona – the first act in Shakespeare’s Othello, taking place in Venice, where that information is to be found, was cut in Boito’s libretto – and in this production he carries about a Madonna picture, which he even kisses.

 I have seen Kristian Benedikt in a couple of other roles, where his acting was less than convincing, but here, in what today is his signature role,  he made a very strong impression right from the outset with a blaring Esultate! In the love duet he turned in a reading full of nuances, something that quite often is out of reach for dramatic tenors. His ferocious outbreaks of uncontrolled fury in the following acts were so steel-gleaming that not even Vedernikov’s decibel-gorged fortissimos were able to drench him. But where he impressed the most was in his third act monologue Dio, mi potevi. There all his pain and bewilderment were congenially expressed.

 Malin Byström sang her very first Desdemona and did so with creamy tone and marvellous legato in the Renata Tebaldi mould – I can give no higher praise. When she sang the Willow song followed by the most angelic pianissimo Ave Maria time stood still. Also Claudio Sgura impressed greatly with a diabolic Credo and a manipulative Era la notte. The minor roles were well taken although Michael Schmidberger’s Lodovico was too weak – or maybe Vedernikov didn’t hold back enough.

 True is that he grabbed every opportunity to revel in the meaty portions of the score, never more so than in the opening storm scene with blinding light flashes and both orchestra and chorus on their toes. A memorable evening!

Göran Forsling

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