Opera News, September 2017
George Hall
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 21. Juni 2017
JONAS KAUFMANN added the title role of Otello to his repertory on June 21 at Covent Garden, in a new production staged by Keith Warner and conducted by Antonio Pappano. Inasmuch as Kaufmann’s repertoire already includes Radamès, Don Carlo and Manrico, not to mention Lohengrin, Parsifal, Siegmund and Walther von Stolzing, his assumption of Verdi’s Moor is not such a surprising move, though ever since Francesco Tamagno created it, back in 1887, the part has been considered sui generis within the Italian repertory—a role either to specialize in or to avoid.

On first hearing, it was clear that the forty-seven-year-old Kaufmann can sing every note and every phrase, and without apparent difficulty or strain. He brings to Otello a lighter, less stentorian approach than some of its regular exponents, with little of the baritonal mix often employed to give the voice extra ballast. He did not give the impression of being careful, though there were few occasions when he fully opened up his voice; when he did, those moments felt satisfyingly powerful. Yet even with so thoughtful a maestro as Pappano in the pit, Kaufmann was occasionally covered by the orchestra.

As a first attempt at one of opera’s great challenges, Kaufmann’s performance can be accounted an overall success, managed as it was with skill and aplomb; but it also felt underwhelming in a way that Otello never should: at this point, Kaufmann’s Otello is less a titanic force of nature than an expertly voiced but ultimately limited conception. It will be interesting to see in which ways his characterization develops.

The evening’s most complete vocal performance came from Maria Agresta as Desdemona. Her tone consistently clean and clear, Agresta brought to the role finely sculpted lyricism and sufficient personality to allow this essentially passive character to maintain genuine sympathetic interest from first to last.

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna replaced the originally announced Iago, Ludovic Tézier, who left the cast due to health problems before rehearsals began. Vratogna is an actor of strong physicality, possessing a big voice that he doesn’t always use with much subtlety or textual insight. The secondary roles were all well handled, with Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun as an elegant Cassio and Estonian mezzo Kai Rüütel making a positive impression as Emilia.

Warner obtained worthwhile dramatic performances from the entire cast, but his relatively traditional staging—a blend of the realistic and the abstract in Boris Kudlička’s resolutely dark-toned sets, with handsome period costumes by Kaspar Glarner—was not remarkable, either visually or intellectually.

The evening’s finest features were the playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra, which offered tautness of ensemble and tonal refinement under Pappano’s baton, and the work of the chorus, whose high-definition singing as coached by their new chorus director, William Spaulding, was equally notable. Pappano remains a master of Verdian style, able to judge tempos with finesse, and to hold the bigger picture in view even as he mines the writing’s smallest details.

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