Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Reviews

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

This may be the twelfth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1987 production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for English National Opera, but the ready laughter from the auditorium and the fresh musical and dramatic responses from the stage suggest that it will continue to amuse audiences and serve the house well for some time to come.

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The third and final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s survey of Monteverdi’s operas at the Barbican began and ended in darkness; the red glow of the single candle was an apt visual frame for a performance which was dedicated to the memory of the late Andrew Porter, the music critic and writer whose learned, pertinent and eloquent words did so much to restore Monteverdi, Cavalli and other neglected music-dramatists to the operatic stage.

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

English Touring Opera’s recent programming has been ambitious and inventive, and the results have been rewarding. We had two little-known Donizetti operas, The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies, in spring 2015, while autumn 2014 saw the company stage comedy by Haydn (Il mondo della luna) and romantic history by Handel (Ottone).

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

Sounds swirl with an urgent emotionality and meandering virtuosity on Jonas Kaufmann’s new Puccini album—the “real one”, according to Kaufmann, whose works were also released earlier this year on Decca records, allegedly without his approval.

Verismo Double Header in Los Angeles

LA Opera got its season off to an auspicious beginning with starry revivals of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci.

Viva Verdi at Opera Las Vegas

On September 9, 2015, Opera Las Vegas presented James Sohre’s production of Viva Verdi at the Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. It was a delightful evening of arias, duets and ensembles by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The program included many of the composer’s blockbuster arias and scenes from famous operas such as Aida, La traviata, and Macbeth.

Barbera Sings a Fascinating Recital in San Diego

On Saturday, September 19, San Diego Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with a recital by tenor René Barbera. This was the first Polly Puterbaugh Emerging Artist Award Recital and no artist could have been more deserving than the immensely talented Barbera.

Wigmore Hall Complete Schubert Song Series begins with Boesch and Johnson

The Wigmore Hall, London, has launched Schubert : The Complete Songs, a 40-concert series to run through the 2015 and 2016 seasons. There have been Schubert marathons before, like BBC Radio 3's all-Schubert week and The Oxford Lieder Festival's Schubert series last year, but the Wigmore Hall series will be a major landmark because the Wigmore Hall is the Wigmore Hall, the epitome of excellence.

Honegger: Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher

Marion Cotillard and Marc Soustrot bring the drama to the sweeping score of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne dArc au bûcher, an adaptation of the Trial of Joan of Arc

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Salieri: La grotta di Trofonio (Trofonio’s Cave)

Demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Antonio Salieri lives in the public imagination as the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — whose genius he lamented and revered in equal measure, and against whom he schemed and plotted at the Emperor Joseph II’s Viennese court.

Chicago Lyric’s Stars Shine at Millennium Park

The annual concert given by Lyric Opera of Chicago as an outdoor event previewing the forthcoming season took place on 11 September 2015 at Millennium Park.

Far in the Heavens — Choral Music of Stephen Paulus

Stephen Paulus provided the musical world, and particularly the choral world, with music both provocative and pleasing through a combination of lyricism and a modern-Romantic tonal palette.

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

Orpheus — that Greek hero whose songs could enchant both deities and beasts, whose lyre has become a metaphor for the power of music itself, and whose journey to the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, kick-started the art of opera in Mantua in 1607 — has been travelling far and wide around the UK in 2015.

Vaughan Williams and Holst Double Bill

One is a quasi-verbatim rendering of J.M. Synge’s bleak tale of a Donegal family’s fateful dependency on and submission to the deathly power of the sea.

Iestyn Davies at Wigmore Hall

Is there anything that countertenor Iestyn Davies cannot do with his voice?

Prom 75: The Dream of Gerontius

BBC Proms Youth Choir shines in a performance notable for its magical transparency

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 65: Alice Coote sings Handel

Disappointing staging mars Alice Coote’s vibrant if wayward musical performance

Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging

Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.



Jose Cura as Otello [Photo by Suzanne Schwiertz courtesy of Opernhaus Zurich]
25 Jan 2012

Otello in Zürich

War and destruction is everywhere these days, not least in Pesaro where Graham Vick staged a lethal Mosé in Egitto last August, nor less so in San Francisco where baritone Thomas Hampson perished as Rick Rescorla in Heart of a Soldier last September.

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

Desdemona: Barbara Frittoli; Emilia: Judith Schmid; Otello: Jose Cura; Iago: Thomas Hampson; Cassio: Stefan Pop; Rodrigo: Benjamin Bernheim; Lodovico: Pavel Daniluk; Montano: Tomasz Slawinski; A herald: Evgeny Sevastyanov. Zurich Opera House. Zurich Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Massimo Zanetti. Stage Director: Graham Vick. Production Designer: Paul Brown. Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann. (January 8, 2012). Photos courtesy of Zurich Opera, copyright Suzanne Schwiertz.

Above: Jose Cura as Otello

Photos by Suzanne Schwiertz courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich


These two gentlemen were at it again just now in Zurich, Mr. Vick staging a new Verdi Otello and Mr. Hampson attempting its villain Iago, a late career role debut that did not even require him to change costume from his convincing, indeed moving portrayal of Rick, the professional soldier cum World Trade Center hero.

In Pesaro Graham Vick exploited the explosive hostilities of the Palestinians and Jews in such graphic detail that some audience fled the theater in terror. The Cyprus Greek Turkish tensions do not carry as much emotional baggage or fearsome consequences, at least in the international psyche, but like Mosé in Egitto the contemporary metaphor, here the on-going Cyprus problem, is too striking to ignore. All this is to say that Verdi’s old story, no longer old, was told in contemporary terms.

Unlike the huge ethnopolitical tragedies of Mosé in Egitto, Otello is a personal tragedy that unfolds in war torn Cyprus, though the visible ravages of war could be anywhere. Its opening chorus is not watching the battle but immersed in it by slathering black soot on their faces, stripping off clothes exposing white bodies parts as if wounded.

Otello_Zur_2.pngFiorenza Cedolins as Desdemona

To preface the opera however, Otello, not in blackface, presented himself alone on the stage thus forcing himself into our close focus for the duration. Maybe it was the lack of the expected blackface that planted the seeds of racism in our minds, and Vick finally allowed overt racism to burst forth only in Act III when a suddenly exposed back-of-a-stage flat said “nigger.” But Vick had made it a black and white opera long before, and on multiple levels. Desdemona appeared in Act I as a phantom bride, a white veiled wife, who moved as if in an Otello dream, his dream of a world of beauty and purity, a sanctuary from the burned black colors of war.

Act IV, the Desdemona act, placed Desdemona in the center of a black stage. She re-entered the wedding dress, covered herself with the bridal veil and became again Otello’s dream as she sang her song and prayer, standing and immobile. We now knew and felt with certainty that this was Verdi’s opera as the Othello tragedy and not the melodrama of a fallen woman.

Acts II and III were in fact the Desdemona acts when she presented herself as an emancipated, worldly woman, possibly unfaithful, even defiant thus taunting the sensibilities of this Venetian general whose Asian sensibilities imagine his woman as veiled, like the burka covered women who praised Desdemona’s exposed beauty in Act II. The opera had suddenly gone globally political and we knew then that its tragically violent outcome was to be understood in universal as well as personal terms.

Otello_Zur_3.pngJudith Schmid as Emelia and Thomas Hampson as Iago

Where, you may ask, did Iago fit into all of this? This is where the Zurich casting choices for this remarkable Graham Vick production come into question. Tenor Jose Cura was a gruff, hulking, brutal Otello who held forth magnificently in high Italianate vocal style and whose high style method acting transported his Otello to admirable histrionic heights. Soprano Barbara Frittoli is young and shapely and a formidable Italianate singer whose personal beauty and beauty and range of voice fulfilled the gamut of Desdemona’s expressive needs in this complex concept.

Thomas Hampson simply did not fill the bill as Iago. His size and age precluded a physicality that could color and magnify and therefore interest us in the ugly insinuations Iago dishes out to Otello. In his army fatigues he seemed still the aged Rick Rescorla of the World Trade Center, towering over everyone, and shouting out accusations to Otello like instructions for evacuation. His nemesis Cassio, played by 24-year-old Stefan Pop was equally out of place in age and size, thus depriving this pivotal character of his essential weight and meaning in Verdi’s drama. Vocally however this young singer made the most of Verdi’s musical points.

With the Pesaro Mosé in Egitto and this Zurich Otello Graham Vick has proven himself to be one of our greatest contemporary stage directors, working now in a rich, highly minimal language with the goal of bold and highly pointed storytelling. As well both operas were laden, burdened, over-burdened with contemporary political messages that enriched the inherent political agendas of both operas. With significant participation of his designer, Paul Brown, the visual and theatrical language is refined to few moves, shapes and colors that bring this theater to astonishing heights of a minimalist expressionism.

Otello_Zur_4.pngThomas Hampson as Iago and Stefan Pop as Cassio

Conductor Massimo Zanetti rose to the occasion executing Verdi’s score in biting and cutting detail, pushing its nervousness to an ultimate extreme, sometimes forcing his singers, maybe including Mr. Hampson, to shout rather than sculpt their musical lines (there is however the possibility and suspicion that this was a staging mandate). While this musical brutality may work for the Otello personage it can as well suppress much of the well known subtlety of this Verdi score.

Finally this Otello tragedy was powerfully felt, intellectually and theatrically. It was not musically felt. And that is perhaps the inevitable when a formidable stage director like Graham Vick tackles a formidable work of theater, overlooking that Verdi’s Otello is an opera as well.

Michael Milenski

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):