Otello


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.

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.

RigolettoThe Best of European Opera 2010

BBC Four, Sat 25th December 2010, 7:00pm

BBC Four’s The Best of European Opera 2010 focussed on a number of extraordinarily inventive stage productions of mostly lesser-known or at least lesser-performed operas over the last year, showing that, regardless of the avant-garde nature of some of the works, there is no lack of ambition or drive to attract and engage new audiences. That drive has been evident in the BBC’s programming, most of it for BBC Four, with a series of programmes dedicated to different aspects of opera from a historical and a modern perspective. Anyone who has been following the TV programming of opera will have at least come across two of the exceptional productions featured in this programme, both of them featuring Plácido Domingo in his new reinvented form towards the end of his singing career, as a baritone. Much was made of his debuting his new singing voice (although Domingo did in fact begin his career briefly as a baritone) in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House, and reprised in concert form for the 2010 Proms, and he was indeed in spectacular form, vocally, as well as demonstrating his marvellous acting ability. The two go hand-in-hand, making him still a formidable presence on the stage and, on the evidence of this and the other television highlight of the year, still not ready yet for retirement.

That other event, featured also in the programme, was the live performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, shot in Mantua, directed by the great Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio with Vittorio Storaro as director of photography. Broadcast over two nights, on the actual palatial locations specified in the libretto and at the corresponding times of the day, broadcast live to over 140 countries over the world on prime-time TV, this was an enormous logistically challenge, as well as highly demanding of the performers, but the results were simply spectacular. Magnificently lit and choreographed, the roles were not only superbly sung, but also extremely well-acted, giving the opera a sense of authenticity in the tense emotions on display. The clip shown, a spellbinding scene from the short but pivotal Second Act, gives some indication of just how good this was, with Julia Novokova measuring up well as Gilda to Domingo’s hunchbacked court jester.

The other performances highlighted in the programme were no less inventive in their state-of-the-art theatrical productions. Perhaps surprisingly – but perhaps not, when it is easier to play safe – many of the more risky ventures were not from the major European opera houses. The Birmingham Opera Company, under the direction of Graham Vick, used an abandoned warehouse on an industrial estate for their contemporary, multi-ethnic production of Verdi’s Othello, spectators and performers intermingling in what must have been a thrilling and engaging experience (it would fare less well it seems on screen). A similar new way of engaging the audience in an unconventional theatrical environment was evident in the ever inventive Willy Decker’s production of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron for the Ruhr Triennale, with the seating on moving platforms and the performance taking place in between, making use of projections and the unique qualities of a decommissioned factory floor space.

Moses

The Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona however showed what could be done in a conventional environment, the programme highlighting a remarkable performance by Diana Damrau as Kostanz in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, showing a remarkable new talent in the making. At La Monnaie in Belgium on the other hand, one of the greats, José van Dam, bowed out in style in a spectacular production of Massanet’s Don Quichotte. In Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, Martin Kuöej staged Wagner’s Die fliegende Holländer in a contemporary setting, with the Dutchman’s crew a band of refugees set against a conflict between the have-nots and a rich elite.  Two relatively new opera houses had notable productions, the Baltic Opera near Gdansk in Poland setting Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a lunatic asylum in Marek Weiss’s staging, while Oslo’s new Den Norske Opera’s new 2008 opera-house staged an inventive new opera by Gisle Kverndokk, Around The World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout travelling through the world of opera (a clip showed the couple in Paris attending one of la Violetta Valéry’s parties from La Traviata).

A fine addition to the opera programming by the BBC this year, BBC Four’s guide to the Best of European Opera 2010 was a heartening reminder of the enormous vitality and healthy state of modern and classic opera around the world – creatively at least, if not always financially, in these economically difficult times.

The Best of European Opera 2010 will be re-broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday 3rd January 2011 at 7pm.