Opera News, February 2019
Jeffrey A. Leipsic
Verdi: Otello, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 23. November 2018
Otello - Munich
STAGE DIRECTOR Amélie Niermeyer promised that Bavarian State Opera's long-awaited new production of Verdi's Otello at the Nationaltheater (seen Nov. 23) would be a version of the story told from Desdemona's standpoint—and one without the title character sung in blackface. Bringing Desdemona out of the shadows turned out to be a more significant act of revitalization than creating a "white" Otello. Despite the current taste for political correctness, the character of Otello is a Moor, which certainly determines the color of his skin—a point that the text underscores clearly and often. Although one can accept a white Otello, there is little to be gained by refashioning the character's ethnicity, rather than casting an artist of color in the role.

Niermeyer's true innovation, which made this production more relevant than most, was her direction of Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. The Otello created by Kaufmann and Niermeyer was a ticking timebomb, a man plagued by the horrors of his own recent experience in war. As brilliantly as Otello has commanded his troops, he is irrevocably marked by the brutality, death and destruction he has experienced. (If we can believe the histories, the battle of Lepanto in 1571 cost more than 50,000 lives.) Otello is a psychological wreck, unable to deal with the intrigues surrounding him or the complexity of his relationship with his new wife. Looking fragile and almost small (compared to the burlier figure of Gerald Finley's Iago), Kaufmann conquered the role's vocal hurdles with aplomb. Piano phrases do not faze Kaufmann—as evidenced by his spellbindingly beautiful delivery of "E it fazzoletto ch'io le diedi pegno primo d'amor"—but the tenor has an audible shift in gears when attempting a decrescendo on a note above the staff.

Niermeyer's concept of Iago was less cogent than her reimagining of Otello. In this Otello, Iago is a nasty, sexually ambivalent sleazeball in his I every scene. In spite of this dramatic handicap, Finley sang the role stunningly, with force, inflection and tonal fullness throughout. Anja Harteros imbued Desdemona with passion and understanding. The soprano's vocal prowess reached its height in the all-important Act III concertato, but her Act IV was heartbreakingly poignant, every tone and gesture telling. Niermeyer let us see her reimagined Desdemona from the beginning of the opera. Nearly paralyzed with fear as her husband's ship returns from battle, challenged by weather, rocks and seas, this Desdemona is a woman of strong personality, able to fight back when she is unjustly accused. Otello's atrocities against Desdemona were all the more telling because she was presented as a woman of fortitude and principle, present onstage for the greater part of the opera.

The rest of the cast was free of any weakness at all. Rachael Wilson, luscious of voice, was a particularly impressive Emilia; Evan LeRoy Johnson, a giant of a man, showed lyric vocal vigor as Cassio. Galeano Salas was a clear-voiced Roderigo, Bálint Szabó a sonorous Lodovico and Milan Siljanov a resonant Montano.

Christian Schmidt's set design was basically a unit setting, featuring a modern bed/sitting-room that was sometimes shown in duplicate at the rear of the stage. Annelies Vanlaere's costume designs were also modern. Roderigo's loud brown-and-white shirt and pantaloon-like pants marked him as a dandy. Iago sported sloppy gray pinstriped jogging pants, black T-shirt and sneakers, and Otello wore a suit and suspenders.

Maestro Kirill Petrenko once again discovered and communicated a new level of brilliance in a familiar masterpiece. Petrenko transports his singers on an unbelievable carpet of sonic comfort without sacrificing the intensity of the opera as a whole: Act IV was especially rich with details one seldom hears. The chorus, directed by Jörn Hinnerk Andresen, although staged mostly as mere commentary in postcard formation, sang exceptionally well.

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