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Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello and Anja Harteros as Desdemona [Photo © ROH/Catherine Ashmore 2012]
15 Jul 2012

Otello, Royal Opera

Elijah Moshinsky’s Otello, first seen at Covent Garden in 1987, and revived numerous times with a range of stellar casts, may be traditional and conservative, even — excepting the thunderous opening storm scene — somewhat uninventive;

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

Montano: Jihoon Kim; Cassio: Antonio Poli; Iago: Lucio Gallo; Roderigo: Ji Hyun Kim; Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Desdemona: Anja Harteros; Emilia: Hanna Hipp; Herald: Bryan Secombe; Lodovico: Brindley Sherratt. Conductor: Antonio Pappano. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera Chorus. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Set Designs: Timothy O’Brien. Costume Design: Peter J Hall. Lighting Design: Robert Bryan. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 12th July 2012.

Above: Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello and Anja Harteros as Desdemona

Except as otherwise indicated, photos © ROH/Catherine Ashmore 2012

 

but, aided by Timothy O’Brien’s impressively towering Cypriot pillars and gleaming marble and Robert Bryan’s resourceful lighting designs, Moshinsky provides a sumptuous spatial and visual arena for the interplay of powerful emotional forces, which can be harnessed by skilful protagonists to showcase the opera’s disturbing intensity and their own musical and dramatic arts.

Moshinsky and O’Brien aim for historical authenticity and unambiguous symbolism and gesture. Black and white chequerboard tiles hint at the racial antagonisms so vociferously presented in Shakespeare’s opening Act but which are only briefly voiced in Boito’s libretto. Rich, velvety crimsons reveal both the depth of the protagonists’ emotions — love, hatred, loyalty and jealousy — and their bloody consequences. The Christian iconography of the lush, Veronese-inspired Renaissance backdrops may be stretching the ‘tragic hero’ notion a little too far, especially given that the excision of most of Shakespeare’s first Act reduces the racial and religious antagonisms of the drama; moreover, the absence of Othello’s final ‘redeeming’ Act 5 monologue, which renders his suicide a restitution of nobility and an act of selfless service to the state, means that we feel pity but perhaps not catharsis at the end of the opera. But, the Crucifixion allusions do add to the timeless quality of the whole.

Initially, Lucio Gallo was a rather blustering, brawny Iago, tending towards noisy vociferousness; but, perhaps this was apt, for Iago is a rough, brash private, lacking Cassio’s gentle chivalry and graciousness. Moreover, Boito’s Iago is a simpler psychological portrait than Shakespeare’s elusive antagonist, his motivation less complicated and elusive, his machinations more transparently enacted. Although prone at the outset to slightly wearing shoulder-shrugging gestures of ‘innocence’, Gallo increasingly found, both in gesture and timbre, more subtle lights and shades — guiding and coercing Otello, bullying Roderigo, duplicitously consoling Desdemona, harrying Emilia. He made good use of the forestage, coercively involving the audience in his plotting while maintaining a scornful detachment; throughout the text was meticulously pronounced, and while arrogantly domineering, he largely avoided pantomime exaggeration. Gallo’s Credo was muscular and focused, as if inviting us to find him attractive, to fall under his spell as readily as his deceived captain. At the end of Act 2, as Iago and Otello fell to their knees to utter an appalling oath of brotherhood and vengeance, the slowly falling curtain intimated the ghastly, tragic fateful path which the ‘hero’ inescapable trod. Their immediate fore-curtain bow was well-deserved.

Otello_ROH_2012_02.gifHanna Hipp as Emilia, Anja Harteros as Desdemona and Lucio Gallo as Iago

Anja Harteros’ Desdemona had both innocent vulnerability and feisty self-possession — she was not a wilting violet but a self-possessed, if somewhat inexperienced, young woman, sure of her love and confident of its reciprocation; a worthy wife for a conquering hero. Despite her unwavering grace and loveliness, Harteros was never overshadowed or dominated; she commanded her scenes with a refined but charming presence, her gleaming, sweet timbre supported by a firm, steely underpinning when required, particularly in the middle voice. With her realisation that death is near and unavoidable, Harteros’ floated ever more delicate, ethereal vocal threads, as Desdemona paradoxically seemed both more powerful in her essential purity and increasingly defenceless before her husband’s deranged delusions. Although Harteros’ intonation was not always flawless, the long-breathed phrases that mattered spoke affectingly; her final angelic cry, elegantly poised and redolent with pathos, truly touched the heart.

So, given the acknowledged technical and dramatic challenges of the role, what of our Otello, the Latvian tenor, Aleksandrs Antonenko? If there were any doubts that vocally he is a worthy successor to his illustrious predecessors in the role, Antonenko’s triumphant first appearance immediately quelled them; his gleaming trumpeting roar, ‘Esultate’, instantly established Otello as a hero of noble grandeur and profound passions, and simultaneously confirmed the Latvian Antonenko as a mighty Italianate tenor with an infallibly lustrous tone and secure upper register. Though perhaps a little rigid dramatically, Antonenko convincingly depicted a man in torment, his external confidence and inner peace unravelling with every twist of Iago’s verbal knife. He had the stamina to project, if not conquer, the challenges of the low register of the Act 3 soliloquy. And, the slightly husky pianissimo rasps of his final fragmented, despairing “Desdemona”s revealed the extent of his psychological disintegration.

There were no weak links in the chain: Jihoon Kim as Montano, Ji Hyun Kimboth as Roderigo and Hanna Hipp as Emilia, all Jette Parker Young Artists, were professional, accomplished and engaging. Antonio Poli’s Cassio had an appropriately light-weight elegance which, dramatically, suggested both a debonair nonchalance and a perilously naive self-assurance.

Otello_ROH_2012_03.gifAleksandrs Antonenko as Otello, Anja Harteros as Desdemona and Antonio Poli as Cassio [Photo © ROH/Tristram Kenton 2012]

Antonio Pappano’s characteristic mastery of the score’s details brought forth nuances which were occasionally missing from the actual movements on stage, if not from the singing itself. From the ferocious storm that he conjured to a deafening but supremely controlled climax, to the portentous, insidious bass rumblings which permeate Act IV, Pappano was in total command, shaping the lines of the Act II quartet to energise the conflicting dramatic dialectics, pushing the vengeful close of the same Act to an agonizingly bitter climax. Every instrumental entry was crisp and clean, and the rhythmic propulsion never wavered, intensity and unrest sitting side by side with quietude and serenity.

The enlarged chorus roared in resplendent and well-marshalled fashion, but their role is fairly small (as was the space available, hence some rather stilted arm waving in the storm scene), and this performance was all about the three principals, whose prowess, consistency and professionalism brought praise-worthy technical flair and sincere depth of feeling to Moshinsky’s solid framework.

Claire Seymour

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