The Otello at the ROH is proper Big Event Opera – the most famous, revered singer of his generation making his debut in one of the biggest roles in the repertoire. The announcement of Jonas Kaufmann in this production set off months of internet frenzy, many people fearing or expecting (and some, I’m sure, even hoping) that he won’t show. An email announcing a “cast change” in the spring caused minor hysteria, even if the singer being replaced turned out to be baritone Ludovic Tezier, rather the main attraction. During the rehearsals regular updates were posted in social media. He’s here. He’s getting into the role. And so, Kaufmann came, he sang, and by most measures, he conquered. Sunday was one of the genuinely most thrilling performances I have seen at the Royal Opera, the cast and the orchestra, conducted by Antonio Pappano, succeeding to pack an enormous punch against a unimaginative production.
Otello is Verdi’s second last opera, and it has a rather modern feel to it – there are no bravura arias (Verdi has come a long way from Trovatore’s hit parade), and the sound and the structure of the music have an unpausing, dynamic flow to them (I’m sure there’s a technical term proper for this). The structure is certainly very different from his early operas, and has often earned comparisons to Wagner – an influence perhaps most obvious in the long, orchestral “postludes” to the sung music; rather than pausing for applause, the music carries over to the next number. Otello also may be the most vocally demanding tenor role in this repertoire, but it doesn’t have big, show-stopping tunes, and the most famous standalone number is the 4th act scena with Desdemona and Emilia, the Willow song followed by the Ave Maria.
The opera comes with the same baggage as the play – how to deal with the race of the main character, who to cast, how to express Otello’s Moorishness. Arrigo Boito’s libretto has done away with much of Shakespeare’s race issues – there’s a brief reference to Otello being a Moor in the beginning, and that’s about it; Desdemona’s father Brabantio doesn’t’ appear. This is a tale of two jealous men and of the people who fall their victims – Iago hates Otello for promoting Cassio over him, and wows to destroy him, doing it by manipulating him into believing that Desdemona is being unfaithful with Cassio. Otello kills his wife and then himself, and in the libretto Iago escapes after confessing to causing all this mayhem out of malice (in this production he’s seized by guards and dragged away). Traditionally tenors singing the role have blacked up, but this production by Keith Warren gives Otello no ethnic features of any kind, including costume. It works just fine, and anything else would seem naff at best, and offensive at worst.
Warren’s production nonetheless is boring and unremarkable at worst, unobtrusive at best – there’s the usual mixture of minimalistic, modern sets, period vague/space opera costumes, and various lighting effects (like the red screen in Act 3 that presumably is an expression of Otello’s rage), some of which, like the map lines on the benches that become a table and the narrow openings on the floor, actually were nice visual details, while at times the dark stage, combined with dark costumes, made for heavy viewing. I was slightly bothered by the large set pieces – they seemed to take quite a lot of effort to move around and weren’t as quiet as they should have been (the white bedroom in Act 4 was particularly bad in this regard). The chorus moving on the raised floor also created a lot of noise the soloists had to sing over, especially during the first act. While a lot of thought has gone into the visual details, I felt at times that the cast had received little direction and were left to create the characters on their own. Kaufmann could bring intense emotion even if he isn’t the best actor on the stage, but some of the director’s dramatic solutions were mystifying – Otello eavesdropping on Iago and Cassio while writhing on the gangplank above was as weird as it was terrifying (a lapse of concentration could have sent Kaufmann crashing on the floor from a height of about 15ft), while Iago symbolically suffocating Otello was very effective even if it stood out somewhat. Agresta didn’t get to do anything much but stand around and emote. Marco Vratogna as Iago looked more like a natural actor, beautifully expressing the spirit of a character who enjoys his manipulations and generally finds stirring up sh*t fun.
But how was the singing? Kaufmann (who is 48 this year) has been, according to himself, consciously putting off singing this role until he has felt absolutely ready for it, and the debate is rife whether he has chosen the right moment. He didn’t sound strained or tired, despite Sunday being already few performances into the run; the Esultate! was confident and suitably triumphant, and he carried well to the end. It wasn’t perfect; the lower and mid registers were a bit cloudy during the first act duet with Desdemona for example, but at least on Sunday he was going at 100%, his performance being exciting, heartfelt and yes, rather sexy (Othello is after all, before it all goes pear-shaped, such a romantic). Agresta was at her best at the Willow song, which was devastating in its beauty; the voice is slightly uneven, but at its best has an exquisite, silvery tone. Marco Vratogna held his own; the voice is powerful he is an exciting, natural performer. The RO chorus was its usual, brilliant self, and Pappano’s conducting was superb as always. The audience response was amazing – all three principals were met with enormous cheer that went on and on, the kind I have rarely seen at the ROH.
There were hundreds of people at the stage door afterwards; can’t really blame Kaufmann for opting not to come.
The Otello has five performances left, two of them sold-out ones with the principal cast. For the second cast a number of tickets remain. The production photos by the Royal Opera, the rest are my own.