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Otello -- Kirov Opera
11 Dec 2007

Otello — Kirov Opera

Despite 19th-century Russia’s reputation as an Italian opera haven, Verdi’s late masterpiece Otello found acceptance there only with great difficulty, even though in its 1889 premiere the title role acquired a great local interpreter in the Mariinsky Theater primo uomo, Nikolai Figner.

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.


Francesco Tamagno, the original Otello, also gathered accolades during his tour a couple of years later. Yet, Otello came to Russia on the crest of the nationalist wave there that had critics and audiences laughing “the old man” Verdi out of the theater. This complex and arguably “un-Verdian” opera proved especially puzzling: too difficult and “modern” for traditionalists raised on Barbiere and La traviata; too old-fashioned for the Wagnerians, and too Italian for everyone else. Today, amid a Verdi boom in St Petersburg unseen since La forza del destino premiered there in 1862, Otello is enjoying a renaissance at the Mariinsky (a.k.a. the Kirov). The opera appears to be one of Valerii Gergiev’s particular obsessions: since he took the reigns at the Kirov as artistic director and principal conductor in 1988, it has had at least five different productions there. The most recent one, premiered this fall and directed by Vasily Barkhatov, is currently playing at the Kennedy Center as part of the Kirov’s annual residency there.

The visually arresting production (sets by Zinovy Margolin; costumes by Maria Danilova; phenomenal lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky) bears little resemblance to Renaissance Crete. The main set (used in Acts 1-3) is an angle of (presumably) a city square; tall white walls stained with gray, like aged marble, narrow towards the back of the set dominated by a huge working lighthouse that might be more at home on a bluff in 1950s New England than in 16th century Italy. The front left side of the stage transforms in the middle two acts into Otello’s office, with heavy wooden furniture, an old-fashioned (i.e., 1950s again) coat stand and round table lamp. The opposite wall (or is it the wall of the city square?) is lined with silent female figures, dressed in black, their heads covered with shawls more Russian than Italian. Beggars, or petitioners, these figures (not a part of the chorus located in these acts on platforms on top of the walls) darken the landscape like an obsessive gloomy ostinato in this increasingly gloomy tale. Particularly striking is the opening of the Act 3 finale, in which Desdemona, dressed in black, joins their line, made destitute by her husband’s suspicions. The costumes overall are modern yet outdated: office suits for the leading men, crisp business-like creations for the socialite Emilia (wonderful Lyubov Sokolova), traditional long skirts and cloaks (increasingly drained of color) for Desdemona; brown and black, drab, nondescript Russian peasant fare (occasionally with a hint of an Italian scarf design) for the crowd. There was no bonfire in Act 1 for the chorus to sing and dance to, but there were fireworks of sorts, with the colorful explosion of confetti from the ceiling and the wings. Single pieces of the confetti then continued to fall down onto the stage through Acts 2 and 3. It was unclear whether the effect was a purposeful one; if not, the coincidence was fortuitous: like falling autumn leaves that evoke the memories of summer, the confetti pieces served as poignant reminders of glories past.

The lead attraction of the production, dramatic tenor Vladimir Galouzine has been the leading man of the Kirov for more than a decade, and an international star for almost as long. The sharp, focused, metallic timbre of his youth, best exemplified on the 1994 Kirov DVD recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, in which he sings the lead, has now turned darker, heavier, with more emphasis on the lower register, and on sheer sound power over crispness and precision of diction and intonation. The change parallels that generally observed in arguably the world’s most famous living Otello, Placido Domingo, who once performed the role in St Petersburg under Gergiev, and whose influence is recognizable in certain moments of Galouzine’s gut-wrenching performance (apart from the “usual suspects” — all four duets with Desdemona and the scene with Iago in Act 2 — I particularly recommend his fabulously menacing asides to his wife in the Act 3 finale). Yet overall, his interpretation is distinctly different from Domingo’s: instead of the tragic noble hero destroyed by evil, Galouzine offers a broken, anxious, almost fragile Otello (despite his suitably earth-shattering Esultate!), damaged not from the outside but from within. The brittleness of the character shows almost from the start of the opera — that is, from the Act 1 love duet, in which the bliss suggested by the score is constantly undermined by Galouzine’s angular gestures, terrified looks over the shoulder, and slouching posture, wrapping both the coat and arms tight around his body as if shivering.

If Vladimir Galouzine’s Otello is hardly a wholesome hero, Sergey Murzaev’s Iago is no Mephistopheles. In his gray three-piece suit, tie, and glasses, he is more of a petty bureaucrat who smiles placidly as he stabs his boss in the back with a letter opener — or in this case a pocket knife he uses to sharpen pencils on the handsome mahogany desk in Otello’s office as he is proclaiming his infamous creed. Incidentally, the singer was clearly outperformed by maestro Gergiev and the orchestra in the fiendishly difficult Credo, central to Iago’s self-representation as the resident devil of Verdi’s opera. Yet his softer, more sinister moments, such as the Era la notte later in Act 2, were pulled off beautifully, with fine sound and nuanced acting. Thus, in the finale of Act 3, in which Iago, with fatherly smile, points out the “lion of Venice” prostrated at his feet to a group of kid extras, Murzaev looked downright creepy.

Young Viktoria Yastrebova was a terrific Desdemona, fearlessly determined not to be dominated by her illustrious partner and occasionally outshining him with a rich, warm, clear sound, effortless projection and pure high notes. The dynamics clearly reflected Barkhatov’s directorial interpretation of the drama itself, and particularly his revisionist take on Desdemona. Instead of the usual weepy blond, Yastrebova offers a dark-haired Desdemona — smart, assertive, unapologetic (as much as that is possible without altering Verdi’s score), and not above manipulating her husband, as evident in the Act 2 duet when she literally lets her hair down in order to seduce Otello into forgiving Cassio (portrayed nicely by Sergei Semishkur). This Desdemona is less naïvely terrified by Otello’s accusations than she is angry, and genuinely concerned for her husband’s mental state; one almost expects her to whip out a business card for a neighborhood shrink. As a result, Yastrebova’s least convincing moment came near the end of Act 4: begging for her life seemed almost beneath the strong and thoroughly modern character projected throughout the opera. The earlier part of that act, however, and particularly the Willow Song, was by itself worth the price of admission.

Apart from making Desdemona a brunette, Barkhatov’s production dispensed with yet another Otello classic — the bedroom scenes. The Act 1 duet is a moonlit picnic on the city square (although Desdemona does bring the bed linen, presumably to use as a tablecloth). Act 4 does include a bed — severe, narrow, pillowless, and used as an ironing board by silent servant women who fold and pack the colorful dresses of Desdemona’s virginal youth (none of which she wears in the opera), as she slowly rips up her wedding night bed sheets, turning them into handkerchiefs. The final scene (from Ave Maria on) takes place not in the bedroom (the opening of the act is performed in front of the black curtain), but on top of the lighthouse that dominated the earlier set. Now in a close-up, it is divided into two narrow fenced circular platforms, one above the other; Desdemona sings her prayers from the lower platform, then watches Otello literally descend upon her from the top. There are no messy murders after Desdemona’s; Iago flees from Otello’s verbal thunderbolts, and the other characters — Cassio, Emilia, and Lodovico the ambassador (excellent Fedor Kuznetsov) — watch silently as Otello (mortally wounded not by his favorite revolver but by something resembling an ice pick — or a screwdriver...) drags his dead wife to the back of the lighthouse, out of sight, like a dying lion crawling back into his lair, unwilling to let go of his final prey.

My review would not be complete without the highest praise for Kirov’s outstanding Choir (principal chorus master Andrei Petrenko). Its performance was strong, clean, rhythmically and intonationally precise, yet alive, particularly in the powerful opening scene played out on a darkened stage lit only by the searching beam of the lighthouse. Finally, maestro Gergiev in the pit was unquestionably the leader of the production, as he should have been in this orchestra-driven score. It was performed with power and intensity, precision and nuance, and very nearly flawlessly, with the exception of some intonation problems in the strings, particularly in the difficult double bass solo that accompanies Otello’s entrance in the last act (not many in the audience would have noticed that flaw, however, as the section was drowned by an epidemic of coughing from the back of the orchestra seats).

Overall, I would highly recommend catching this innovative, powerful, and intensely watchable production, still available Wednesday night (with partially new cast) and Sunday afternoon (with the main soloists reprising their roles).

Olga Haldey

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