Switzerland Verdi, Otello: Soloists and Chorus of Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Marco Armiliato (conductor), Zurich Opera, 5.3.2017 (JR)
Otello – Aleksandrs Antonenko
Desdemona – Maria Agresta
Iago – Željko Lučić
Cassio – Benjamin Bernheim
Emilia – Yulia Mennibaeva
Roderigo – Iain Milne
Lodovico – Dimitri Pkhaladze
Montano – Roberto Lorenzi
A herald – Stanislav Vorobyov
Producer – Graham Vick
Revival assistant – Ulrich Senn
Sets and costumes – Paul Brown
Lighting – Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus-master: Jürg Hämmerli
This production was first seen in Zurich in 2011 (with José Cura) and 2013 (with Peter Seiffert). It is a thoughtful modern-day production from Graham Vick and well worth reviving every few years. The performance I attended was a so-called “Peoples’ performance” (Volksvorstellung) with ticket prices substantially below the usual levels thanks to local sponsoring – it guaranteed a sell-out.
The action takes place in modern-day Turkey and Cyprus, with the Moslem women wearing headscarves and the men mainly in white. A very large model of a mosque tells us we are in Turkey. Otello and his co-soldiers are often in combat fatigues, a tank rolls on to the stage, a burnt-out car, barbed wire and road blocks all indicate modern-day terrorist warfare. Some quite disturbing images of fire damage are shown on video during the chorus in which they sing of the joys and perils of fire; the storm scene in Act One is a veritable Blitzkrieg of strobe lighting. Vick makes the production appropriate for Swiss audiences by twice making blunt references to the unapologetically racist political propaganda of Switzerland’s right-wing Populist Party, warning about the spread of mosques (the minarets made to resemble missiles) and the problems of immigration (black and white sheep). He also displays the N-word to highlight Otello’s own personal insecurity: Otello is not “blacked up” at all in this production, barring a few occasional smears of tar on the cheeks; this might confuse some. Only the degradation of Desdemona in front of the assembled crowd and dignitaries does not ring true in today’s world but otherwise it’s a case of an insecure man resorting to domestic violence.
On the vocal front, we were told that Antonenko was recovering from a cold and a residual cough would make itself apparent, as it indeed did. However Antonenko’s firm tenor impressed throughout, even though his breathing in the early acts was clearly under some strain from his respiratory complaint. Antonenko fits firmly into the Vickers mould of Otello, not Domingo’s – so gruff and physical rather than sympathetic and lyrical.
Maria Agresta was simply perfect in the role, with clear diction, spot-on intonation even on the highest notes and acting skills to match. There is no bed in the bedroom scene, Desdemona dies in her (stunning) wedding dress, throttled by her veil rather than smothered by a pillow. Serbian baritone Željko Lučić was always a demonic and chilling presence on stage and clearly at home with the role, a fine singer and actor. I was most impressed, not for the first time, by French tenor Benjamin Bernheim (as Cassio); he makes a beautiful sound and is an artist to watch.
Yulia Mennebaeva as Emilia was rather drowned out in the quartet but later gained in confidence and volume. Partly this was the fault of Marco Armiliato in the pit who always erred on the side of too much volume, in what is really a small opera house. The orchestra however, particularly the brass, played magnificently.
Roberto Lorenzi was a rather gruff Montano, Dimitri Pkhaladze a sonorous Lodovico, Iain Milne not quite loud enough as Roderigo.
The chorus were full-bodied and timing should improve in later performances.