Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

This Prom was all about places: geographical, physical, pictorial, poetic, psychological. And, as we journeyed through these landscapes of the mind, there was plenty of reminiscence and nostalgia too, not least in Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The Queen's Lace Handkerchief: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

Billed as the ‘First British Performance’ - though it had had a prior, quasi-private outing at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe in July - Opera della Luna’s production of Johann Strauss Jnr’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief (Das Spitzentuch der Königin) at Wilton’s Music Hall began to sound pretty familiar half-way through the overture (which was played with spark and elegance by conductor Toby Purser’s twelve-piece orchestra).

Glyndebourne perform La clemenza di Tito at the Proms

The advantage of Glyndebourne Opera’s performances at the BBC Proms is that they give us a chance to concentrate on the music making. And there was plenty of high-quality music-making on offer at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 28 August 2017 when Glyndebourne Opera performed Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska in Pesaro

The rare and somewhat interesting Rossini! Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815) comes just after Elisabetta, Regina di Ingleterra (the first of his nineteen operas for Naples) — a huge success, and just before Il barbiere di Siviglia in Rome — a failure.

Jakub Hrůša : Bohemian Reformation Prom

At Prom 56, Jakub Hrůša conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme on the theme of the Hussite Wars and their place in Bohemian culture showing how the Hussite hymn was incorporated into music by Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček and Josef Suk.

Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival

South African actor, artist, multimedia artist, film and theater, now opera director William Kentridge has taken the world by storm over the past few years. In my experience The Magic Flute in Brussels, The Return of Ulysses (puppets) in San Francisco, The Nose in Aix, Lulu at the Met, Die Winterreise and his “One Man Show” in Aix. And now Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival.

Lear at the Salzburg Festival

Undaunted by the bloody majesty of this 1606 Shakespeare tragedy, German composer Aribert Reimann embraced the challenge back in the cold-war era (1970’s). Its Munich premiere was in 1978, a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production that then traveled to San Francisco in 1981. Of the Munich cast only Helga Dernesch as Goneril appeared in San Francisco.

Ariodante at the Salzburg Ferstival

From time to time felicitous circumstances create impromptu masterpieces, like the Salzburg 2017 Whitsun Festival production of Handel's Ariodante that has continued just now into the 2017 summer festival.

Glimmerglass Being Judgmental

There was a sense of event about the closing performance of Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsberg for days in advance.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):