Kunde, Jaho, and Pappano make Warner’s Otello at Covent Garden show what great opera is all about

11/12/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 9.12.2019. (CC)

Gregory Kunde (Otello) & Ermonela Jaho (Desdemona) (c) Catherine Ashmore

Production:

Director – Keith Warner
Set design – Boris Kudlička
Costume design – Kaspar Glarner
Lighting design – Bruno Poet
Movement director – Michael Barry
Fight director – Ran Arthur Braun

Cast:

Otello – Gregory Kunde
Iago – Carlos Álvarez
Desdemona – Ermonela Jaho
Montano – Michael Mofidian
Cassio – Freddie De Tommaso
Roderigo – Andrés Presno
Emilia – Catherine Carby
Herald – Dawid Kimberg
Lodovico – David Soar

My esteemed colleague Jim Pritchard reviewed the first run of this staging, which starred Jonas Kaufmann in the titular role (review click here). Antonio Pappano remains constant, galvanising his orchestra into some remarkable demonstrations of sheer power and maintaining a remarkable sense of momentum. This is music he was born to conduct, and the reactions of the orchestra – including the off-stage brass – reflected this sense of purpose. Viewing the opera in one long line from first to last meant that the power of the work’s final moments was undeniable.

Keith Warner’s stark staging is highly effective, mainly through the expert lighting of Bruno Poet. Sloping walls can have a claustrophobic effect; striated lattice lighting invokes situation as well as highlighting atmosphere.

Venetian masks reflect not only the geographical location, but also the masks the characters don in life. Otello is every inch the leader in war; Iago’s ‘Credo’ seemed as pure a statement of who he is – and who he is aware he is – as could be imagined, set against a completely black set. The slipping of Otello’s mask as he descends into his own personal purgatory is viscerally experienced by both character and audience. A Lion of Venice makes its way across the stage at one point, just inviting press photos, and reappears, shattered, towards the end. But it is the stark nature of the staging that seems so in congruence with the drama; emotions are laid bare in the shadow of our psyche. What light there is (a Spring-like tree, Desdemona’s clinically white bedroom) seem more like glimpses of stars against a morosely dark sky. There is also something of a feeling of emotional displacement because of this bareness of stage; what literal representations there are (a ship, for example) seem themselves chimeric. As the darkness engulfs the entire piece, we also understand that the end is contained in the beginning; the seeds of Otello’s unravelling are there from the very beginning.

Otello on more than one occasion observes the action from above, isolated (as he in fact is in reality) from what goes on below. Perched precariously high up seemed to pose no problems for Gregory Kunde, whose resonance with his role seemed total.

The singing contained some remarkable performances, most notably from the two main male leads. Illinois-born Kunde gives a performance of huge power (it is mind-boggling to read that he is 65 years of age). This Otello is a man’s man, and Kunde’s singing reflects that, stentorian, forthright and always eminently believable – so much so, that it is as if we follow him on his journey towards death. Right from that first ‘Esultate!’, we know that ego is both rampant, and that it is the key to his downfall. We do see Otello’s human nature (an incredibly powerful ‘Ora e per sempre addio,’ and ‘Dio! Mi potevi scagliar’) and, as the opera progresses, we realise how fragile his mask is.

He is, astonishingly, equalled by the Iago of Carlos Álvarez. Again, the assumption of the role is total. We absolutely believe the blackness of Iago’s heart, and interestingly in so doing we realise that perhaps he had no choice; his role is – and has always been – to sow dissent, heartache and death.

I imagine Ermonela Jaho’s Desdemona might split commentators. The first two acts found her unsettled, her sound rather uncontrolled, just the odd moment of a beautifully floated note to remind us of what she is capable of. And then came the final two, post-interval acts, and the greatness she is surely capable of came fully to the fore in a reading of heart-breaking intensity. The final scenes of the opera gained huge power not only because of Pappano, but because of the proper enmeshing of this Otello and this Desdemona. After an evening in which the production put the spotlight on the rawness of the emotional energies in this opera, the conclusion actually demanded two singers at the top of their form, and both Kunde and Jaho rose to the occasion.  Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ commanded the attention, not just in its beauty, but in the way Jaho was able to hold the silences in between phrases.

Jaho’s Desdemona is superbly supported by Catherine Carby’s strong Emilia. Of the smaller roles, Freddie De Tommaso was a robust Cassio (strong voiced but also strong-willed), while David Soar brought gravitas to the role of Lodovico.

There is much to be said for the foregrounding of characters’ emotions, and indeed, the orchestra’s contribution, through a staging that, despite the odd passing lion, allows the emotional power of the characters to come through, particularly when they are alone on stage. It is easy to see why the staging might upset traditionalists, but on this particular night it enabled a magnificent musical experience to unfold thanks to the deep understanding of singers and conductors. This meshing of vocalism, orchestra and production is surely what great opera is all about.

Colin Clarke

For more about what is on at the ROH click here.

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