Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak explore a toxic relationship in Vienna’s 2018 Otello

AustriaAustria Verdi, Otello: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Graeme Jenkins (conductor). Performance filmed (directed by Jakob Pitzer) on 18.3.2018 and reviewed when streamed on 2.3.2021. (JPr)

Vienna State Opera’s 2018 Otello Act II

Based on a production by Christine Mielitz
Revived by Alexander Edtbauer
Sets – Christian Floeren
Lighting – Rudolf Fischer
Chorus director – Thomas Lang

Otello – Roberto Alagna
Desdemona – Aleksandra Kurzak
Iago – Dalibor Jenis
Cassio – Antonio Poli
Montano – Orhan Yildiz
Emilia – Ilseyar Khayrullova
Roderigo – Leonardo Navarro
Lodovico – Alexandru Moisiuc
A Herald – Ion Tibrea

This was the final revival of Christine Mielitz’s 2006 Otello and I am surprised it lasted so long; though I am beginning to think audiences in Vienna are not as conservative as I always believed them to be. (It will be interesting to see what Simon Stone’s new La traviata which premieres on 7 March – in the otherwise empty Vienna State Opera – has in store for those watching.) This Otello is described as being based on the original production so will have been somewhat diluted since 2006, though the mise-en-scène mostly remains the same I suspect as might some of the Personenregie because it was so well acted.

Christian Floeren’s minimal set has an often-illuminated central square(?) platform with raked steps to rear and sides. There is a video screen at the back with raging storm clouds and foaming seas and stark overhead lighting. There is much black leather worn, a table, a couple of armchairs, and the performing space can become a cube of flimsy gauze or be cut off by a stage-wide metal screen. In an opening – which was a poignant reflection of the world it currently is – there are some inexplicable masked figures who we do not see again. Desdemona is already present and clearly deeply in love with Otello. I felt great sympathy for the chorus during ‘Fuoco di gioia!’ (‘Fire of joy’) who – with red clouds behind them – jiggled away very self-consciously. They were in dowdy costumes and the black scarves for the women hinted that they were Muslims. If this Otello is a Moor he was bronzed-up rather than blacked-up and with his chain mail and the white hooded cloak we later see him in, it made him look rather like El Cid. Desdemona will be seen throughout in white as a sign of her purity and innocence.

A lank-haired and Mephistopheles-like Iago stirs up Roderigo against Cassio who gets so drunk and disorderly that Otello must intervene and demote him. Iago suggests to Cassio that Desdemona can intercede with Otello on his behalf. Iago detests the Moor and there is more than a hint of racism when he refers to him as the ‘thick-lipped monster’ as well as other slurs. Iago’s conspiracy against Otello gathers pace as he undermines his love for the naïve and guileless Desdemona. As Otello’s jealousy begins to overwhelm him the clouds are now green! There will be more aimless movement as a chorus line of 12 young girls in white do a slow kick step. I have always felt Otello is much too easily fooled in all the shenanigans about the handkerchief Desdemona attempts to sooths his fevered brow with and gets stolen from her maid Emilia. As Desdemona pleads Cassio’s case Otello insists on seeing that white handkerchief and because it is now ‘lost’ – and all she has is a black one – this is the proof Otello needs about her infidelity. He is seen pulling the screen across and there is a powerful image of him being a prisoner of his confused mental state.

This will be compounded by Iago orchestrating for Otello to roam around the platform and overhear fragments of a conversation with Cassio talking about his desire for his own mistress and revealing how he has found a strange handkerchief in his lodgings. By the time the Venetian Republic’s ambassador Lodovico arrives, Otello is losing his mind. He greets Otello and is there to recall him to Venice whilst appointing Cassio – of all people! – to replace him. Again, Desdemona starts to intercede for Cassio and this is too much for Otello who pushes her to the floor. Lodovico is horrified and some of those looking on – and with oddly bloodied hands! – rush to her aid and seem to venerate the abused Desdemona for her saintliness. Otello curses his wife and with his mind in complete turmoil he collapses as the platform spins and Iago gloats.

For the final act, the platform is turned into a huge, white-shrouded bed, or possibly a catafalque. During her ‘Willow Song’ Desdemona will pull the covering off. All the gauze will reappear (and later fall) and Otello will be caged in for the fatal denouement and – however much I expected it – Desdemona’s strangulation here was particularly shocking. The truth is finally revealed – along with the full extent of Otello’s tragedy – as Emilia tells how Iago made her give up the handkerchief. Desdemona’s corpse is carried away and mourned whilst all there is left for Otello to kiss – as he dies having stabbed himself – is her bridal gown he is cradling in his arms.

It seems that for many of the singers involved these were role debuts at Vienna State Opera in this Otello. Obviously, the main interest was seeing Roberto Alagna and Aleksandra Kurzak – of course married in real-life – bring to life Otello and Desdemona’s toxic relationship for the first time. Both have voices that you would not immediately associate with these roles but after seeing and hearing them I so much want to see them ‘live’ in Otello if there is any chance in post-pandemic times. This was not Alagna’s first Otello and he was totally convincing dramatically, as well as vocally. He gives a remarkable performance as someone trying to come to terms with his personal demons and prone to physical violence. From Plácido Domingo and Jon Vickers – my first two Otellos at Covent Garden – onwards I have heard any number of strangulated attempts at ‘Esultate!’ and I don’t think I have heard it better sung than Alagna did here. This was his character’s only commanding moment, from then on this Otello was assailed by self-doubt and a coiled spring of uncertainty and anger.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Desdemona) and Roberto Alagna (Otello)

Alagna’s Otello is essentially lyrical but there is sufficient burnished tone to make his fall even more deeply tragic. The highlights were obviously his first entry; the ravishing love duet in Act I (in which Kurzak played no small part) where it was clear this Otello was a battle-scarred warrior; there was great intensity in the fiery oath-taking Act II duet ‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro’; then he was half-demented during ‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali’ in Act III as Otello introspectively bemoans his fate; and finally how – now a totally broken man – only the hardest of hearts will not be affected at Otello’s quiet and immensely moving death scene (‘Niun mi tema’).

Aleksandra Kurzak’s Desdemona is almost pitiable in her young bride’s innocence and with her fresh-sounding, limpid soprano she reminded me of two Puccini heroines, Butterfly and Liù, rather than Verdi ones. Regardless she created a believable young woman in total self-deluded infatuation with a man she reveres. Captivating throughout, Kurzak comes into her own in the final act as she sings with delicate high pianissimos her heart-breaking ‘Willow Song’ and her final ‘Ave Maria’ which builds slowly as a powerfully emotional prayer. It all proves – if any proof were needed – how guiltless Desdemona is in the face of all the wrongful accusations she has so stoically endured. Preparing for her death which Desdemona knows is fast approaching, Kurzak lingers affectingly on her last words ‘nell’ora della morte’.

Dalibor Jenis’s rich baritone voice was ideal for Iago and his acting just as assured, so an evil persona seemed second nature to him. He sounded properly dangerous, and there was smarmy, blatant obsequiousness as he poisoned Otello’s mind against Desdemona. Jenis sang his nihilistic ‘Credo’ almost demonically with the orchestra stirring things up until the mention of the nothingness of death (‘La Morte è il Nulla’) brought a viscerally chilling pause to the music and culminated in some maniacal laughter.

This triumvirate are the only characters Verdi is really interested in and the rest are mere cyphers. Nevertheless, they were all part of an ensemble cast from strength and well-supported by the chorus who sang Verdi’s raging choral music lustily. The sweet-voiced tenor Antonio Poli did well as the unwittingly duped Cassio, and Orhan Yildiz (Montano) and Leonardo Navarro (Roderigo) were just as good in their even smaller roles. Ilseyar Khayrullova was a rather more forceful Emilia than we are familiar with, whilst Alexandru Moisiuc was an oddly stern and stolid Lodovico.

As much as is possible to hear through loudspeakers, Graeme Jenkins conducted an excellent Otello keeping any of the musical longueurs that sometimes can beset Verdi to a minimum. Jenkins got bristling energy and unflagging virtuosity from his musicians which helped bring out all the drama in Verdi’s score. Jenkins accompanied the singers sensitively and only turned up the orchestral sound when the choral scenes allowed it.

Jim Pritchard

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