the arts desk, 22 June 2017
|by Ismene Brown
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 21. Juni 2017
Otello, Royal Opera review — Kaufmann makes a pretty Moor
New production of Verdi's tragedy is a trial to look at - and heaven
to listen to
Recorded on disc, this cast would be extraordinary for much of the time — to
look at, not so much. Royal Opera House conductor Antonio Pappano lured
Jonas Kaufmann to London for his first attempt on the Everest of tenor
roles, and with so many recent uncertainties about his vocal condition, last
night the German took his debut cautiously but beautifully — his astonishing
good looks enhanced with a spritz of Mediterranean bronzing rather than the
full-on Moorish blackening of yesteryear.
The flattering look dilutes
the dramatic effect, however. Less perfection needed. For you need to
suspend much disbelief to accept Kaufmann (pictured below) as a man so prey
to doubt about his sexual appeal to his wife that he kills her simply
because of an insinuation that another man flirted with her. He is by unfair
advantage a glorious man, up there with Roger Federer and Cary Grant, and
masculine vulnerability is not credible in his case without some
considerable effort on the director's part.
For this Otello to be
imprisoned in Keith Warner’s lifeless new production, set inside a chilly
black box set, and with all the high emotions staged with perplexing
physical awkwardness, does not help breach disbelief. (I noted with pleasure
the special brevity to which the costumier had tailored his jerkin over his
long, graceful legs.)
In fact reasons for this Otello’s lack of
self-esteem are hard to see in the production. None of Shakespeare’s
suggestions are there — the racial card is minimised to vanishing point,
Maria Agresta’s Desdemona is not intimidatingly gorgeous, Marco Vratogna’s
bull-headed, shaven Iago is a blatant bad sort and Frédéric Antoun’s
delicate Cassio is no threat to anyone.
There’s little imaginative
stimulus in the setting — this Venetian colony on Cyprus has nothing of
Mediterranean light, sea or sensuality, everything being starkly lit and
black, with a boxy bench or two, and walls that are prone to move
ponderously about. With nowhere to sit or recline, the chief singers must
loll or writhe on the floor, trying to sing their high notes while prone,
which always costs tone. Poor Desdemona spends a lot of time crawling,
kneeling and lying in her big dresses, when it looks ridiculous. Equally
ridiculous is the vast white Lion of St Mark statue that trundles across the
stage for a few seconds, and is next seen in bits in Otello’s loft.
Really, the thing’s a trial to look at, and thoroughly discouraging of the
fatally heated ensemble verismo required of Verdi's distilled scenes.
But there could be no finer encouragement to the casts than Pappano, who
from the first notes whips the Royal Opera House orchestra like Poseidon
whipping the seas or Zeus the fates. Three hours whirl by, neatly split by
one interval. What a fantastic volume of sound from the Royal Opera chorus
in the opening, their stasis making eloquent contrast with the raging of
Verdi’s scene-painting. Every word in the libretto seems to be reflected in
the composer’s scoring, and Pappano pounces on the sparkles, birds, breezes,
and the natural features that the staging chooses to ignore.
moment Kaufmann came ashore, trumpeting success over the Muslims, you heard
a man of nobility and courage, though he had to force the volume to ride
Pappano’s monster waves of brass. Later performances might show a less
hesitant stage commitment to the relationship with Agresta, and to the
physical embodying of Otello’s loss of mental control of his jealousy. A
Kaufmann-Pappano audio recording soon, please, not video, so that he can
exploit his potentially thrilling vocal characterising without the
distraction of physically acting it under a bad director.
Agresta (pictured above) is intriguing. Her grainy soprano, with a spreading
vibrato, sounded heavy in the first act, yet vanished to almost nothing in
her lower register. Still the honesty of her Desdemona grew on me, and
became greatly moving in her final scene, singing to her inconsistent vocal
limits in a way that was dramatically compelling, haunted in the "salces"
and achingly sad in the Ave Maria.
Vratogna’s Iago (pictured above)
is a bit of a mystery in the scheme of what Pappano seems to be indicating.
He dominated the stage physically, with a suitably black-hued baritone and
brooding predatoriness, but barked out Iago’s part with such violence of
timbre and undisguised unpleasantness that the idea of Kaufmann’s well-bred
Otello being best mates with him was implausible. Some reining in would
benefit all round.
Thomas Atkins sounded good as Roderigo, there is a
nice slick sword fight in Act 1 choreographed by Ran Arthur Braun, and some
of the chorus sopranos sound more wobbly than desirable.