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.

The 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.

The Italian 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.

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