Kelessidi, Elena


OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opera North, 2013 | Richard Farnes, Tim Albery, Ronald Samm, Elena Kelessidi, David Kempster, Michael Wade Lee, Ann Taylor, Christopher Turner, Henry Waddington, Dean Robinson, Paul Gibson | Grand Opera House, Belfast, 9 March 2013

There are some operas that are so emotionally raw and overwhelming that they are almost too much to bear. Sometimes you wish the singers and the orchestra would just tone it down a little, purely for the sake of those poor souls of a more delicate sensibility. Verdi’s Otello is one of those operas. You go into it knowing what is in store and hope you can get through it relatively unscathed. From the opening moments of Opera North’s new 2013 production, seen at the Grand Opera House in Belfast, with the chorus, orchestra and thunder sound effects resounding around the theatre right from the outset, it was clear that this was not going to be one of those occasions.

Otello is of course one of Verdi’s darkest operas, but I wasn’t aware quite how dark it was until I heard Opera North’s production. It’s a late, mature Verdi work, Verdi doing Shakespeare moreover with a sophisticated libretto provided by Arrigo Boito that is composed to the highest levels of subtlety in the characterisation and in the musical arrangements. It’s a piece of the utmost dramatic integrity, with no overture, no show-stopping arias or interludes for ballets. It’s direct, to the point and, in as far it describes characters capable of the extremities of human feelings, Otello takes no prisoners. That much I already knew and had experienced before.

With the sheer force of the huge choral arrangements, the volume of the orchestration and the thunder and lightning effects accompanying the opening storm, it seemed like Opera North were going to play this mature Verdi like one of his early pot-boilers, full of blood and thunder. There’s nothing wrong with those early works of Verdi, but should Otello not be handled with a little more delicacy than Oberto or even the composer’s earlier Shakespeare adaptation Macbeth? Richard Farnes, Tim Albery and the orchestra of the Opera North show that there is a case for the score of Otello to be thunderously played, for the extreme emotional content to be sung resoundingly, for the dramatic interpretation to be played to the hilt, and every ounce of human emotion to be wrung out of the work. You would expect no less from Shakespeare’s play, so why not Verdi too?

There’s a reason why the delicate sensibility of the listener shouldn’t be spared the ravages of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello‘ or Verdi’s Otello, and that’s because they are works that explore the extremes of love, hatred, jealousy, beauty, compassion and delicacy. Act I of Verdi’s Otello alone is a masterful expression of a whole range of human characteristics, from the fear over the fate of Otello’s fleet in the storm, jubilation at the Moor’s success in battle with the Turks which turns into celebration at the garrison in Cyprus where the boisterous play turns into a brawl. That’s followed by a tender love-scene between Otello and Desdemona. And then Act II has Iago’s famous Credo and the bitter poison of jealousy spreads into every aspect of all those joyous moments of the first act.

That’s wonderfully presented in Tim Albery’s meticiously pitched production for Opera North which has been updated to what looks like a WWII-era marine barracks. Act I is bustling with life with Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio energetically leaping over tables to take part in a violent brawl, David Kempster’s Iago delivers Act II’s Credo forcefully and without histrionics, while the confrontation between Ronald Samm’s imposing Otello and Elena Kelessidi’s delicate Desdemona is violent and shocking. And it should be when you know what dark passions have been stirred and where they are going to lead. That’s warning enough for you to steel yourself for where Act IV takes us, but the conclusion nonetheless still manages to take you unawares.

That’s down to Verdi’s brilliant scoring of the work, and in this case, a perfect reading of those intentions by Albery, Farnes and the Opera North team, where the perspective and the tone of Act IV is determined by Desdemona. Her beautiful nature, her kindness and generosity towards Cassio, her love for Otello is an antidote to the sentiments and nature that has been twisted in the testosterone-fuelled duelling that has taken place in the previous acts. Rather than lessen the impact of the charged atmosphere that has been created of course, this only makes it more tragic. The finale, like the rest of the performance here, was superbly balanced in this respect, maximising impact, perfectly in accord with the delicate Wagnerian leitmotifs that Verdi employs so effectively at those key moments.

The challenges of playing Otello were compounded by the effort made to perform it at this ultra-charged level of high emotion. The performance of the Opera North Orchestra was a loud and muscular one, yet it was one that was at the same time very carefully attuned to the fluid changes and subtleties of the range of musical expression. That could nonetheless potentially present problems for singers who not only have to match the powerful nature of the sentiments expressed here, but also rise above the sheer volume of sound that was coming from the orchestra pit. Otello is evidently the most challenging role, as much for singing as for making his jealous nature comprehensible if not exactly sympathetic, and Ronald Samm coped extremely well with the singing challenges, but just as importantly succeeded in creating a rounded human portrayal of the devastation a man can wreak upon himself.

A full picture of Otello however cannot be achieved without a sympathetic Desdemona to bring out those human qualities - the noble ones as well as the less admirable ones - and Elena Kelessdi was just such a Desdemona. Any minor concerns at times that she might not be able to hold her own against the forceful delivery of Samm or David Kempster’s Iago were soon put to rest by her spirited performance and an Act IV that really hit the mark in its expression of her character’s nature. Michael Wade Lee’s Cassio was also spot-on in his wearing of his heart on his sleeve, giving an open, unguarded and enthusiastic performance. Special mention should be made of the Opera North’s Chorus and the Children’s Chorus which really punctuated the work with the necessary impact at the critical moments in the drama. I’m sure I’ll see a few more Verdi operas before this bicentenary year is over, but I’ll be surprised if anything forces a reevaluation of one of the composer’s works as much as this muscular and sensitive performance of Otello by Opera North.

Passenger Mieczyslaw Weinberg – The Passenger

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2010 | Teodor Currentzis, David Pountney, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva, Angelica Voje | Unitel Classica - NEOS

Is an opera dealing with Auschwitz automatically worthy of acclaim simply through its dealing with a subject that can’t help but be powerful and emotive? Or are some subjects are just so taboo that they shouldn’t be turned into art, since any attempts to do so will almost certainly diminish them? The approach to Schindler’s List, for example, with its theatricality, its glossy, immaculately-lit and carefully composed cinematography, is certainly questionable, as is the means through which Spielberg chooses to approach the Holocaust, but surely even dealing with the subject and bringing awareness to a wider younger audience has its merit? Written in 1967-8, it’s taken over 40 years for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger to receive its World Premiere at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2010, and on the basis of this remarkable production, it seems that opera is the perfect and perhaps the only art-form really capable of dealing with the complex questions that the subject give rise to.

Dealing with events that took place in Auschwitz from the perspective of looking back on what happened, those questions relate here to the issues of guilt and conscience, specifically over the involvement and culpability of ordinary German people in the atrocities committed during the war in the Nazi concentration camps. The subject is raised as a German official, Walter, is about to set sail with his wife to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil during the 1960s. His wife, Lisa, becomes upset however when she sees a passenger on the ship, a woman who reminds her of a dark episode in her past that she has never told her husband about. The woman reminds her of Marta, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, where Lisa was an SS camp overseer.

This is an extraordinary subject to make an opera about, and, as you would expect, it’s treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity and has the potential to be deeply upsetting, the imagery and the setting taking on further significance through its performance in Austria, close to where similar events took place in the past. More than just dealing with the subject in a grim manner – which is easy enough to do through the dramatic situation alone – Weinberg’s The Passenger brings an incredibly more powerful dimension to the subject by making everyone, Nazis and Jews alike, sing. The power of the singing voice can be taken for granted in an opera, but rarely has it been aligned to a subject that is so emotive in its own right, and it serves to intensify both the evil pronouncements of the Nazi camp attendants as well as the laments of the prisoners. But it also has relevance to the story – yes, even in Auschwitz, music was played, and the image this evokes is truly pitiable.

Passenger

The libretto by Alexander Medvedev, based on a novel by camp survivor Zofia Posmysz (the only one of original writer involved in the opera still alive and present at this performance), manages to evoke these deep and dark sentiments through disturbing poetic imagery (included in full in an accompanying booklet and well worth reading on its own) of the “Pitch black wall of death, the last thing you saw before oblivion“.  That brings to mind the “huge black wave” of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the influence of Shostakovich is evident also in the music.  Weinberg’s extraordinary arrangements include jazz, swing music, waltz and simple theatrical accompaniments but it also has folk laments and dark jabs of strings, woodwind and percussion that underscore emotions of a kind that are rarely, if ever, dealt with in opera. Libretto and score combine then to get to the heart of the subject in the most direct and powerful manner, questioning the attempt of Lisa and Walter to wipe away the memory of the past and move on with their lives, comparing it to the Nazi’s looking for an easy solution to dispose of 20,000 bodies a day. This horrifying concern over practicalities seems to dominate over guilt and conscience and over any deeper consideration of what those actions mean.

The staging at Bregenz is remarkably effective, with incredible multi-level set designs that keep the action fluid, retaining the connection between past and present, the ship above the concentration camp below – an arrangement that culminates in Lisa’s spectacular metaphorical descent into hell. It’s the genius of the opera also that it primarily considers the subject from the viewpoint of Lisa, a former SS Overseer in Auschwitz. It takes in not just those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, but also necessarily takes into account the people who carried out the atrocities, and tries to consider how they can live with themselves afterwards. Forgiving and forgetting, however, is not an option.

The video quality of the Blu-ray release is superb – possibly the best I’ve seen in High Definition – the whites and creams of the ship scenes contrasted with the sepia tones in the Auschwitz scenes, which show remarkable detail for being so dark. The audio is not perfect on account of it being a live performance and with the difficulties of setting up microphones. The music booms and is a little echoing in places, occasionally overwhelming the singing, but more often it’s clear enough to hear the detail and the colour. There is only one track, DTS HD Master-Audio 5.0, which is centrally focussed, but it downmixes to stereo quite well for those with only a 2-speaker option. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Polish and Russian, with an additional Multilingual option for the libretto which uses several languages. A superb half-hour documentary ‘In der Fremde’ covers the background of Weinberg and the history of the opera, including an interview with Zofia Posmysz.