Fabiano, Michael


OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opéra National de Paris | Marco Armiliato, Andrei Serban, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Sergei Murzaev, Michael Fabiano, Francisco Almanza, Carlo Cigni, Roberto Tagliavini, Renée Fleming, Nona Javakhidze, Chae Wook Lim | Opéra Bastille, Paris, France - 28 June 2011

The relative restraint and respect for the source that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito afford Shakespeare’s drama is all the more apparent to me for having a few nights previously watched a production of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (and also relatively recently, a Blu-ray recording of Verdi’s Macbeth). While Shakespearean drama suits the familiar big Verdi subjects of romance, jealousy and revenge, Otello (1887) however marks a change in Verdi’s approach to opera composition, moving away from the bel canto tradition in Italian opera that has been influential in his composition of great arias to express the blood-and-thunder nature of the subjects, towards a more dramatic focus with emphasis on psychologically realistic characterisation and a musical integrity that doesn’t stop at intervals to let the diva show off her vocal talents.

The amount of effort that went into consideration of the nature of the drama and the make-up of the characters is clearly evident in the way the drama plays out and in the respectful reading in the performance by the Opéra National de Paris at the Bastille that adhered to these intentions with a relatively low-key approach to a highly emotive subject – jealousy. The programme however revealed detailed notes made by the librettist Arrigo Boito on each of the characters and on how they out should be played. In the case of Desdemona, for example, he notes that “the serene and chaste figure of Desdemona must present a profound experience of love, purity, nobility, goodness, innocence and devotion… the more natural and measured her playing, the better she will arouse the sympathy of the spectator”. There could hardly be a better description than that of the performance of Desdemona in this production by Renée Fleming, although I would also add that her honey-inflected voice brought out another level to the nature of her character that was thrilling to see played-out to its inevitable and moving conclusion. Unfortunately, while Fleming came out of it better than most, I don’t feel that the direction or the dramatic staging in the revival of this 2004 production by Andrei Serban helped her or any of the other performers.

Otello

There’s a need to remain controlled and restrained, but there’s also a need to let go in Otello, even if it’s just a flash of emotional torment, rage, desire, jealousy or cruelty. It’s certainly there in the musical composition, which is measured and calculated both within the score and the libretto to achieve the maximum impact of the necessary condensation of the original drama, we saw it also in some of the performances, but it wasn’t brought out or enhanced by the sets or the stage direction. Visually, the sets looked fine during each of the three acts, in a typically tasteful Paris Opera fashion, making good use of the full width and height of the stage through a mixture of uncluttered props, organised choreography, strong colours and lighting and a considered amount of projections. It was however, too brightly lit, too colourful, too clean-cut and smooth-edged to be appropriate for the sombre tone of the opera itself, and there consequently remained a disparity between the content of the opera and how it actually looked.

It’s hard not to identify that the principal theme of Otello is jealousy, but what is marvellous is the subtle way that Verdi and Boito handle the potentially melodramatic situation that develops between Othello and Desdemona. The composer takes time to establish all the courage of the Moorish governor of Cyprus, all the charm, beauty and innocence of Desdemona and the love and devotion that they share, but he shows the utter devastation that jealousy can wreak on even the most stable of personalities and relationships, and this slow-acting poison is introduced brilliantly in the form of Iago. We were perhaps fortunate that on the performance I attended we had Sergei Murzaev in the role of Iago, since on alternate nights, Lucio Gallo took over the role and, by most accounts, played the part in his usual baritone baddie manner that was ill-suited to this particular role. Murzaev was a much more subtle and insidious presence, which is really how it should be, because, regardless of the order of billing or the actual amount of singing, it’s Iago who has the most important role in determining the course of events.

Otello

In an opera that doesn’t have any particularly big moments – apart obviously from Desdemona’s death scene, which was indeed extraordinarily moving here – one of the most famous arias in the opera (one not directly drawn from Shakespeare, it must be noted) is Iago’s Credo, where he lays out the nature of his cynicism in a powerful manner that the subverts Christian belief system. Wonderfully, and clearly thought through by Verdi and Boito, even if it does adhere to familiar stereotyping of the tenor, soprano and baritone types, the declamatory nature of the baritone villain in this section is balanced by the lyrical beauty of the soprano and the noble tenor elsewhere. They too each have their moments, but they are far from the usual playing of such roles. It’s Iago who runs this show, and his presence, his very existence, removes any trace of romantic idealism. If there is necessarily less ambiguity in the characterisation within the compressed libretto, Verdi makes these colourations in the score and in the very structure of the opera that refuses to play according to type.

All of this came through marvellously in this Paris Opera production, the orchestra finding those subtleties of shading, and the singers by and large finding and expressing the nature of their characters, particularly Sergei Murzaev and Renée Fleming. Aleksandrs Antonenko sang well and was a strong presence, but I would have liked to see him let his mask slip on occasion, as he appeared to suffer from the operatic version of the some Shakespearean actors’ gravitas and solemnity, intoning the scared words and going through the motions on cue, without ever hinting at any deeper understanding of his character. True, Othello is manipulated throughout by Iago like a puppet, but there should always remain the deeper resolve within Othello that the character exhibits earlier in the drama, which is not so much broken down as twisted into a perversion of its original nature in a way that reflects Iago’s Credo. The stage direction was somewhat lacking in this respect, failing to suit the drama or find a unifying theme or concept that would support the wonderful coherency and intelligence within Verdi’s opera, but the performance alone, aligned with the strong themes of the original work, was strong enough nonetheless to carry this through.

LucreziaGaetano Donizetti - Lucrezia Borgia

English National Opera, London | Paul Daniel, Mike Figgis, Claire Rutter, Michael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles | The Coliseum, London - February 18th, 2011

Even without reading the programme notes for Mike Figgis’ production of Lucrezia Borgia for the English National Opera, it’s clear from very early on that the medium isn’t an environment that the film director feels entirely comfortable with. Even before the opera proper starts, some flashback scenes written and filmed in Rome by Figgis as a background to what takes place in the opera, are projected onto a white screen hanging over the stage, making it clear that he has approached the opera in much the same way that he would make a film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – opera is open to incorporating many disciplines and giving them varying weight, as well as being open to the kind of reinvention that new technology and modern ideas can bring to it – and there has accordingly been a healthy cross-over of film directors between the cinema and opera. While the short films that accompany the opera then are not at all needed, they are nevertheless a valid response to what the director sees as a need to give psychological, real-world depth to a character who is larger than life and, in Donizetti’s opera, played larger than life. There are, one could say, inconsistencies in the characterisation and gaps in credibility that arise out of its novelistic source in the work of Victor Hugo and its attempts to provide redemption for a complex and really quite notorious historical figure whose vile nature and her murderous inclinations towards anyone who criticises her family name is scarcely tempered by her love for her lost son, Gennaro.

In this case however, the impression is given that not only does Figgis not know his audience – an opera audience does not need the same kind of literal, realist approach as cinema, with the psychological background of the characters laid-out in this way – but it seems that he doesn’t understand opera, and the fact that, in a strong well-written opera (and Lucrezia Borgia certainly falls into that category), all the explanations that are needed, all the expressions of personality and the motivational factors – the guilt and the passion that lies at the heart of the characters – are all contained within the music and within the singing itself, even more so than in the narrative of the libretto, which can otherwise seem contrived and scarcely credible.

This failure to understand and get to grips with the medium he is working in or the audience he is working for, results in a rather over-literal, static and reductive approach for a director who can otherwise be quite avant-garde and experimental when it comes to filmmaking (Timecode, Hotel, COMA). A measure of his mistrust of opera, his audience and his own reaction towards it is in his choice to play Orsini (a female playing the role of a male), as a female, as if an opera audience couldn’t possibly grasp this convention that is so far removed from the rather more literal approach of cinematic realism. On his approach to the actual staging, there is also some merit to reducing the amount of clutter and glitz that usually accompanies a period, bel canto opera, and just letting the music and singing stand on its own. For the most part, the performances are certainly up to that task, particularly from Claire Rutter in the role of Lucrezia, but there is also a strong performance (particularly in the brindisi scene) from Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini, and the bond of love and friendship that lies between them actually does take on an interesting dimension and create other resonances with Orsini played as a female.

Lucrezia

There is however an additional constraint that Figgis finds himself struggling with, and that is the policy of the English National Opera to perform opera in English wherever possible, regardless of the suitability of the opera. Admittedly, some opera can work surprisingly well in English – Wagner’s Parsifal, seen at the same opera house the following night – worked no less effectively in English than it does in German, but bel canto opera, for me at least, is entirely associated with the qualities and sounds of the Italian language. Conductor Paul Daniel worked on the translation himself, and really, he failed to do justice to the work, with some of the choices made provoking chuckles from the audience at inappropriate points, not at all helping to establish the desired tone, and making Figgis’ attempt at psychological depth and realism all the more difficult. Significantly, the short film segments made by Figgis himself were in Italian with English subtitles.

The reduction of the staging and the simplification of movements does have some impact then in reducing the over-the-top propensities of the opera that Figgis evidently feels need to be constrained, and while it restricts the dynamic and results in what is not the most eye-catching of productions, it does at least focus the attention on the singing. One gets the impression however that the reduction of the staging into smaller areas is an attempt by Figgis to scale down the canvas, as per the framing in his film work, and break it down into discreet, static, sections that can be brought together when reworked for the cinema or television screen. As such, it would seem that Mike Figgis has been brought in more with the first ever 3-D Live opera broadcast in mind (tomorrow 23rd February 2011 for Sky Arts 2 HD and for cinema). Here one can imagine the director being more at home, progressively experimenting in a filmed medium, using simultaneous action and multiple angles. As such however, unfair though it might be for the theatrical audience, his stage production of Lucrezia Borgia feels like an unfinished product that will only come to fruition when it is brought to the screen.