The Times, June 22 2017
Neil Fisher
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 21. Juni 2017
Opera review: Otello at Covent Garden
Jonas Kaufmann’s introverted portrayal is countered by macho performances from the Royal Opera orchestra and chorus
British opera fans are teeming with green-ey’d monsters this summer, since tickets for Jonas Kaufmann’s performances in the title role of Verdi’s Otello are as few on the ground as upbeat cabinet ministers. And with every appearance by the German star, expectations rise another notch.

Kaufmann’s imaginative first take is true to the tenor’s instincts: power deployed alongside studied moments of stillness, the voice sometimes thinned down to a whisper. In Keith Warner’s production we first see him raised up from the crowd, motionless in his armour, eyes to Heaven, a Titian portrait come to life.

Having delivered his trumpety cry of victory, Kaufmann’s switch to vulnerable ardour in the love duet that closes the first act is beautifully done. Muttering of his bloody deeds to Maria Agresta’s soothing, generously sung Desdemona, he seems half in trauma from his martial exploits and half panicked that the battle is over. Later, trapped by Iago’s lies, Kaufmann delivers his great lament, Dio! mi potevi scagliar, seated downstage as pure Shakespearean soliloquy. The combination of his mostly soft-grained singing and this lost-soul interpretation, however, is perhaps less Othello, more Hamlet.

That this introverted portrayal is countered by such macho performances from the Royal Opera orchestra and chorus is part of the alchemy of opera. Both are on blazing form, with Antonio Pappano drawing thick coal-black textures from the strings, rapier thrusts from the fevered brass. Even some faltering double basses in the final act didn’t detract from the total, pulverising effect.

The momentum mainly slips because of Warner’s messy staging, which wrestles with naturalism and symbolism and falls down a black hole. Literally so: Bruno Poet’s eccentric lighting shrouds everyone in gloom with occasional nightclub spotlights. Kaspar Glarner’s costumes are 16th century (ish), but Boris Kudlicka’s clunky designs give us sliding grey walls with spyholes and pop-out platforms, a set-up that looks like the Barbican centre on a bad day. A group of tumblers provide dubious and distracting diversions. Much of the budget has been splurged on a huge winged lion, which is wheeled on, wheeled off, and then promptly smashed up so that Otello, the “lion of Venice”, can implode in front of a giant metaphor. But he also strangles Desdemona on a bed that looks as if it was bought in from Zara Home and made up with White Company sheets.

The result is a mish-mash: in the shadows, Marco Vratogna’s Iago, malevolent and spidery (although monochromatically sung), makes his presence felt, but others feel like ciphers, and who Kaufmann’s Otello really is in this society (outsider? Muslim?) isn’t clear enough. From the rest of the cast, there are vocally strong contributions from Frédéric Antoun’s dashing Cassio and Simon Shibambu’s imposing Montano. I would definitely hear more from this Moor — but let’s hope he finds a better showcase.

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