12 Dec 2019

Otello at Covent Garden: superb singing defies Warner’s uneven production

I have seen productions of Verdi’s Otello which have been revolutionary, even subversive. I have now seen one which is the complete antithesis of that.

Keith Warner’s production - with the help, or hindrance, of Boris Kudlička’s sets - is a dark tunnel through which we travel, down an endless vortex, into this Shakespearian carnage of intrigue, jealousy and murder. If it has a single virtue it is that it rarely interferes with the Otello-Iago-Desdemona triangle because what Warner does is allow these characters to take to the stage as if completely exposed before us. The sheer minimalism of this, at times, expressionist design is fraught with danger, however; it relies entirely on three singers who can sing and act their way through the emotional complexity of Boito’s libretto. Thankfully, that is largely what the casting of this first revival of Warner’s 2017 production achieves.

Gregory Kunde’s Otello, grizzlier than usual, but struggling to exert his victorious supremacy in the opening scene, is simply overwhelmed by Warner’s grand setting during the storm. But this isn’t atypical of this production; the big choruses, the fights are projected to be epic. The elements of earth, air and water are all there it’s just that Kunde’s ‘Esultate!’ is rather shipwrecked by the excessiveness of the staging around him. However, when Warner allows his Otello to take centre stage, Kunde is magnificent in fleshing out a character who is on the brink of destruction for his obsessive love of Ermonela Jaho’s fragile Desdemona and the decaying jealousy which will inevitably conclude in their deaths.

Carlos Álvarez’s monstrously manipulative Iago is both literally, and metaphorically, tinted through the duality of two opposing veils. The black and white masks which Iago juggles with - notably in the ‘Credo’ - are in essence but shadows of Kudlička’s sets: those vast black-walled shape-shifting screens which suddenly give way in Act IV to the purity and blanched whiteness of Desdemona’s bedroom are striking, if perhaps inevitably obvious.

Otello production image Ashmore (1).jpgPhoto credit: Catherine Ashmore.

There is, I think, more to Warner’s Iago than meets the eye; or, perhaps it was entirely how Álvarez decided this Iago should be played. Boito doesn’t particularly stretch the motives for Iago’s deception of Otello; but Warner does, at least, make him more Mephistophelean than we usually get, at least implying there is something more deeply rooted in this character’s malevolence. Warner places his Iago in a smoke-churning, almost Hades-like furnace, during the ‘Credo’ so the suggestion is at least there that there is more than just envy motivating him. If the Bonfire Chorus had been a seething, almost Macbeth-like display of vivid colour the ‘Credo’ is plunged into semi-darkness with just the grey remains of the smoking fire pumping up from the stage. But this still isn’t an Iago who slivers like a snake, a Cobra ready to inject his final poison. Rather, what you see is what you get; the scales on his coat jacket reminding us that his mendacity isn’t even skin deep.

Of course, emotion in Otello is inversely framed. Álvarez proved more than capable of making Iago deliberately devoid of it; his was a particularly powerful portrait of an Elizabethan ‘Revenge’ character. Kunde, on the other hand, walked a neat tightrope between his jealousy and his obsession. Jaho’s Desdemona - perhaps as one might expect for a singer so adept at singing Puccini heroines - was touching and vulnerable. What was undeniable was the superb chemistry between the three singers which made the tragic end all the more devastating.

Kunde as Otello and Ermonela Jaho as Desdemona.jpgGregory Kunde as Otello and Ermonela Jaho as Desdemona Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore.

That chemistry was also apparent in the blending of the voices and the refined, studied acting. There is something of the Madonna about the role of Desdemona (though you generally struggle to see that in Warner’s production - in the Homage Chorus it seemed notably absent). Jaho is so slight she is like a porcelain figurine, delicate and fragrant, with a voice to match. If it isn’t particularly firm, it is exquisitely refined - and impressively able to float pianissimos like butterflies in flight. We got a ‘Willow Song’ from her which was unexpectedly touching, often completely reflective of Verdi’s orchestration (mirroring a clarinet here or there) - but it also had the right amount of pent-up emotion.

That Kunde’s Otello should have been such a formidable presence, and that the voice was generally so powerful, made his relationship between Desdemona and Iago more balanced than it usually is. The fact Kunde is a tenor who can howl and rage when he needs to, carved out a brutalist portrayal of an Otello who clearly made his presence felt. This was rather striking in Act IV, in the bed chamber, where Kunde simply had to be on stage against an orchestra where double basses were muted to exert a power which was just simply menacing. He could be lyrical with Desdemona (in their Love Duet) and then simmer with uncontrollable ravings when his jealousy manifested itself. It was an entirely complete portrayal of a complex character.

Carlos Álvaros’s Iago - as is so often the case in performances of Otello - was layered with riches. This was an Iago, that even when Otello turned on him during ‘Tu! Indietro! Fuggi’ resolutely refused to be cowed, an Iago, who in the closing Act II duet with Otello, where the act of vengeance is sworn, ripped through the orchestra. As a study in base psychological terror, emotional coldness and premeditated evil it was a formidable achievement. His voice is dark, yet steady, and at times sounds almost deliberately anti-lyrical but that is perfectly suitable for Iago. In the magnificent Quartet, where Iago tricks Emilia into giving him the handkerchief it, was Álvarez who was the focus of attention - despite being all but occluded behind the latticed backdrop. The irony, of course, is that Iago has almost nothing to sing - while Desdemona carries almost the whole of the piece.

There were almost no weak links in the rest of the cast. Freddie de Tommaso’s Cassio was cleverly cast - a handsome figure drawn into Iago’s scheming but entirely plausible as guilty to a jealous Otello, and innocent enough for Iago to revel in his power to ruin others’ lives. He sang beautifully, capturing the brawling, hard-drinking, quick-to-arms roguish captain. Andrés Presno was a decent Roderigo, Catherine Carby an Emilia tricked into the unfolding plot devised by Iago, then touching in her final scene with Desdemona.

This is in many ways what I would describe as an anti-production. There are merits to this, assuming one has a cast of principals who have the chemistry to work together and a conductor who readily views Otello as the magnificent achievement it is. Antonio Pappano is clearly of this view - and that was apparent from the opening storm, paced with a visceral energy that never really receded throughout the rest of the opera. Pappano’s gift, especially where the score demands tonal colour (such as in the prelude and first scene of Act IV, or the Bonfire Chorus) is to give the music a true Verdian palate. Some of the instrumental details, the woodwind phrasing, the beautifully balanced off-stage brass and their genuinely golden hue, were very impressively done.

But Warner’s reliance on his cast is a risk, especially when some of this production seems tenuous. One wondered, for example, what the shattered remnants of the Lion of Venice symbolised in the rafters of a room in Act IV. Nice little touches, such as Otello’s blood spurting like a red inkjet against the white wall in front of Desdemona’s bed, were few and far between.

We should certainly be grateful that this Otello was the artistic achievement it was; future revivals of it might not be quite so lucky.

Marc Bridle

Otello - Gregory Kunde, Desdemona - Ermonela Jaho , Iago - Carlos Álvarez, Cassio - Freddie de Tommaso, Roderigo - Andrés Presno, Emilia - Catherine Carby, Montano - Michael Mofidia, Lodovico - David Soar, Herald - Dawid Kimberg; Director - Keith Warner, Conductor - Antonio Pappano, Set Designer - Boris Kudlička, Lighting Designer - Bruno Poet, Costume Designer - Kaspar Glarner, Movement Director - Michael Barry, Fight Director - Ran Arthur Braun, Trinity Boys’ Choir, Tiffin Children’s Chorus, Chorus and Orchestra of The Royal Opera House.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Monday 9th December 2019.