Financial Times, 26.11.2018
Shirley Apthorp
Verdi: Otello, Bayerische Staatsoper, 28. November 2018
A storm-wracked Otello at the Nationaltheater, Munich
Amélie Niermeyer’s production of Verdi’s opera for the Bayerische Staatsoper features compelling performances

A storm is raging with such fury that you can almost taste the salt from the spray. Munich is a long way from the sea, but Kirill Petrenko makes the waves crash out of the orchestra pit with such violence that you fear for Otello’s life.

Which is not inappropriate when Jonas Kaufmann is singing the title role. In this storm-wracked Venice, the tenor is out of his depth, close to drowning throughout, not only in the prelude. For stage director Amélie Niermeyer, this is Desdemona’s story; Otello is a military everyman, terribly damaged by the trauma of war, and his new wife has too much faith in the transforming power of love.

Christian Schmidt’s stage is a cavernous room containing only a bed, a fireplace and a chair or two; a ghost room, featuring the same objects, often appears in front of the original, presumably representing a state of mind. In this ghost room, as the opera begins, a Desdemona double thrusts her hand into the burning fire before running, arm in flames, through the crowd. She is, all too literally, playing with fire.

Annelies Vanlaere’s costumes place the action everywhere and nowhere, perhaps in 1950s America, perhaps today. The chorus, generally black-clad, often sings from the shadows; the focus is firmly on the principals.

Fortunately, Anja Harteros is well able to carry Niermeyer’s fixation with Desdemona. She lives and breathes the role, her voice unfolding yet another dimension each time you thought it could get no better. Hers is a proud character, allowed a tiny moment of self-determination when she throws Otello’s crumpled handkerchief into the fire, almost fierce enough to save herself, yet fatally self-destructive.

Most compelling of all is Gerald Finley’s Jago. He makes a towering, charismatic figure, sliding into pure evil through a process of self-recognition, a Machiavellian puppet master who finds joy in destruction, with a voice equally strong across the registers, cracking with danger, rich in complexity.

Petrenko takes it all at a rollicking pace, always forceful, so taut that it is close to breaking point, thrilling, terrifying. His singers surf the wild waves — all except poor Kaufmann, who struggles audibly, and often lets the swell wash over his head. The role is a size too big for him; he would have been better advised to leave it alone.

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