|Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.|
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House
One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)
If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.
Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.
Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.
Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.
|Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene|
Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlička, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.
However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.
There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.
Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.
Details and booking here.
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