Friday 7 July 2017

Otello at the Royal, or, Musically Electric (But Cut the Statues)

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Sunday 2nd July 2017.

Unusually for me I booked to see this because of a singer – Jonas Kaufmann – whose career I have had the good fortune to have been able to follow since early unforgettable appearances at the Edinburgh Festival in Schubert and Mahler. I hadn't been particularly sold on the work when I previously saw it in a revival of the venerable Moshinsky production (though I was lucky to hear the outstanding Anja Harteros as Desdemona), and I've never got on well with Keith Warner as a director. As it turned out, and a little to my surprise, this was in many ways an excellent afternoon.

At the heart of this success was a blazing dramatic musical performance from Antonio Pappano who drew superb playing from the Royal Opera House Orchestra – sounding far more comfortable and convincing than under Rousset in Mozart at the beginning of last week. This provided a strong platform for the singers. Kaufmann was in very fine form in the title role, at least to my ear. Where heft was needed he possessed it, without compromise of tone. He successfully found both ringing heroism and soft emotion. Perhaps occasionally towards the bottom of his range one might have liked a little more power, but overall it was a very satisfying performance. Maria Agresta doesn't quite have the flexibility and beauty that I remembered from Harteros but she was very moving in the scena that opens Act Four, and never less than fine elsewhere. From my usual perch in the Amphitheatre I felt Marco Vratogna's Iago could have done with more heft but again it's a perfectly fine performance and he certainly brings great character to the role. The minor parts were solidly taken. The Chorus found a weight that I've sometimes missed in other recent performances.

Warner's production has much to commend it. Firstly, it is solidly revivable. More than that, it was for me, convincingly in harmony with the music nearly all the time. The way walls open up and close down, assisted by Bruno Poet's lighting creates convincing internal and external worlds. Furniture is fairly bare but this is overall not a problem. Having Iago give a wall a shove here and there during scene changes is nicely done. Just occasionally I wished for that bit more naturalness to the changes – that is, you don't notice the best changes of scene because they fit so completely into the rest of what is going on – and here there are occasions when you see people in costume moving bits of set and it doesn't feel part of their character but simply an external requirement. Chorus movement could also do with a bit more of the same – the ideas behind the movement in Act 3 are fine, but I'm afraid it currently looks a bit mechanical.

The one snag in Warner's approach is that in the second half I had the feeling that he suddenly grew anxious to show he had interpretative ideas. Up till that point everything is flowing along in a straightforward, dramatically effective manner. The first sign that Warner was getting restless was the enormous statue of a lion which is pulled across the stage by the Venetians, pauses for a moment or two, so we can be sure to appreciate they've brought the thing, and then disappears off the other side never to be seen again. It serves no useful purpose that I can see. Statues are obviously on Warner's mind because at the end of Act 3 a wall swings round at the back to reveal an upper room in which another enormous piece of marble is located – the back of a naked man with some sort of wing over his head. It's presumably intended to emphasise ideas in the piece about sexual promiscuity but it just feels unnecessary. Warner's other misstep comes at the start of Act Four. Firstly Desdemona's bedroom appears to be below the room containing the naked male statue – this struck me as just bizarre. Then the couple's bed – a vivid white in contrast to the black of just about everything else (an unnecessarily obvious move) is on a truck which is slowly pushed down to front of stage through the quiet opening prelude. As with other such movements this season (the wall at the end of the new Rosenkavalier came to mind) it seems this can't be done silently. I also really couldn't see that it served any dramatic purpose – you could perfectly well simply raise the curtain with the bed already in position. Finally, the breaking in of personnel at the end loses effectiveness by the decision to trap some of them in the upper room with the statue, and it is a bit odd that Otello ignores a perfectly good sword right in front of him and instead circles round the bed to pick up a previously concealed dagger to kill himself.

Overall, this is a very strong afternoon of opera, but as with the new Rosenkavalier I do feel a little judicious tweaking might be in order before the first revival.

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