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Stuart Skelton as Otello and Leah Crocetto as Desdemona [Photo by Alastair Muir]
15 Sep 2014

Otello at ENO

English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.

Otello at ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Stuart Skelton as Otello and Leah Crocetto as Desdemona [Photo by Alastair Muir]


David Alden’s new production of Verdi’s Otello is a stirring exercise in chiaroscuro. Boito may have omitted Shakespeare’s first Venetian Act but the jarring opposition the inflammatory imagery which Iago hurls at Brabantio — ‘an old black ram/ Is topping your white ewe’ — is powerfully embodied in the bold juxtapositions and gargantuan shadows of Adam Silverman’s superb lighting design, in the electrifying musical contrasts conjured by conductor Edward Gardner, and in the incontrovertible opposition of the murderous Otello’s black attire and Desdemona’s white night-gown.

There is little colour. Designer Jon Morrell has constructed a claustrophobic, monochrome set: high stone walls tower over dusty grey cobblestones, shutting out the exterior world, although the imposing portico occasionally slides aside to give a glimpse of distant sunsets. Costumes are similarly muted: Otello’s dull mustard war-coat is soon cast aside for anonymous black worsted (indeed, there is little to distinguish this Otello visually from those around him); Iago dons heavy, dark leather; Desdemona is shrouded in flowing black folds. Only Cassio’s bright blue uniform and Emilia’s rust-brown coat and cloche hat alleviate the subdued palette. Tellingly, there is a flash of fire, and it is sparked by Iago’s dropped cigar at the start of the raucous drinking song — by these means, he ignites his Machiavellian plot. The small flaming brazier returns in the final scenes: Iago’s evil has kindled the flames of jealousy to their tragic climax.

Otello_ENO_2014_02.pngStuart Skelton as Otello and Jonathan Summers as Iago

There is much to admire in this production, not least some fantastic singing from chorus and soloists alike. In Act 1, the ENO Chorus roared with exhilaration when their triumphant commander’s sail was espied and greeted Otello’s arrival with a thrilling outburst of excited passion, as Turkish flags were unceremoniously shredded. But, the decision to have the Cypriots’ hymn of praise to the beautiful, pure Desdemona sung off-stage was somewhat odd, necessitating extra dancers to bestow gifts upon Desdemona, the strewn ragwort suggesting a garden milieu.

Peter Van Hulle’s Roderigo was a portrait of preening solipsism, his smooth tenor aptly mellifluous. Roderigo’s dandyish white suit and Panama hat presented a sharp foil to the prevailing darkness, as he flopped foppishly in the margins. As Cassio, Allan Clayton sang with sincerity, the warm sound open and full, the phrasing elegant and lyrical. Cassio’s essential grace and goodness — as Shakespeare’s Iago admits, ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly’ — was powerfully communicated. Barnaby Rea had real stage presence and imperious dignity as the Venetian senator, Lodovico, while Charles Johnston was a resonant Montano.

Pamela Helen Stephen’s strait-laced costume made Emilia seem rather reserved; and as there was little attempt by Alden to establish any sense of the relationships that Emilia has with her brutish husband or with her noble mistress, Stephen was left on the periphery dramatically. But, the mezzo-soprano sang with characteristic clarity and vividness, particularly when Emilia’s angry despair finally found passionate voice in the closing moments, and Stephen made the most of every opportunity there was for dramatic nuance.

Leah Crocetto has a big voice and she sang with unforced power and much lyric beauty as Desdemona, in what was her UK debut. Crocetto’s Desdemona had grace and refinement; she demonstrated a fine feeling for a Verdian line, although at times I found the wide vibrato overly mature — Desdemona has, after all, barely left childhood. Initially calm and self-assured, Crocetto suggested that she might serve as a path to redemption for Otello; indeed, this inference was strengthened by Alden’s inclusion of a recurring visual motif — an altarpiece Madonna which reminded us of Desdemona’s chasteness and angelic purity, as well as recalling the Roman Catholic Italy where the opera was composed. And, thus, in Act 3 when Iago dupes both Cassio and the concealed Otello, the darts that he flung at the icon cemented his demonic status.

Crocetto modulated her tone effectively during the ‘Willow scene’ and in her tragic tussle with the deluded, deranged Otello, as she strained to assert her innocence, candour gave way to resignation. Why, therefore, was this tragic dénouement not more affecting? One problem is the setting: Alden retains the outdoor locale of the previous three Acts, and the murder takes place not in the bedchamber but in the street. This weakens the trajectory of Shakespeare’s play, which moves progressively, with a gradual tightening of the dramatic focus, from large public spaces to ever more claustrophobic private interiors, culminating in the domestic bedroom.

Moreover, in both play and opera, Desdemona has been banished by Otello to this bedroom — that the tragedy occurs in a matrimonial chamber emphasises the nature of Otello’s weakness: honoured, esteemed and mighty martial leader he might be, but he is also ‘Rude … in my speech, And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace’ — it is his inexperience in matters of the heart and home which allows Iago to deceive and manipulate his commander, for dishonour in his marriage will blemish Otello’s reputation and thus destroy the public persona that is his edifice against racial discrimination and abuse. It is true that the conflict in Verdi’s Otello has almost no racial dimension; but, this alteration does remove an important element in the characterisation. And, there are still anomalies which result from Alden’s alfresco setting, chiefly the absence of the bed upon which Desdemona bids Emilia to lay her marriage sheets and nightgown, and upon which she dies.

In their despair, Desdemona and Otello clutched at facing walls, as Iago perched on a be-shadowed chair, watching his handiwork unfold; thus Alden, by sending the protagonists to the extreme reaches of the stage, emphasised their emotional separation but this also distanced us from their suffering.

Indeed, Alden conveyed little sense of the all-consuming love which must have existed for Otello and Desdemona to dare to defy paternal, social and cultural mores. In the title role, Stuart Skelton sang with marvellous lyricism and expressive range, finding soft tenderness in his end-of-Act 1 duet with Desdemona (‘Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor’) and heroic anger in his Act 3 vengeance duet with Iago (‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro’), in which the garish smearing of the men’s faces with blood made for a striking and ironic image of brotherly loyalty and love. But, Skelton’s Otello was overwhelmingly a man alone, and the tragic tangle of relationships was only sketchily drawn. Despite the booming vocal sonority of his first entrance, and his impressive physicality, even at the start Skelton did not capture the majesty and stately grandeur of the man entrusted to lead the Venetians to victory over the Turks. (Perhaps English, ‘We have triumphed!’, doesn’t quite have the magnificent ring of Italian, ‘Exultate!’?) Instead, Otello seemed distracted and withdrawn, and the signs of impending disintegration were evidence from the first. Psychologically and socially, this Otello was above all else an outsider and there was throughout a Grimes-ian angst and instability in the flashes of violence (the chairs strewn around the stage were a reminder of Otello unpredictability) and, as he tossed his papers of state furiously into the air, his indifference to social authority and judgements. (The reference to the Pleiades in Tom Phillips’ translation only seemed to underscore the parallels.)

It seems that focusing on Otello’s existentialism was a deliberate directorial decision; in a programme interview, Alden explained, ‘I think the portrait of Otello in the opera is a very interior one. It’s not so much about the social context but rather about the life of this man’. But surely, as for Grimes, it is the simultaneous desire to belong and defy that is Otello’s undoing? Removing him from his context weakened our understanding of Otello’s feelings and our empathy for his anguish.

One who did convey the full range of his character’s emotional flaws and twisted motivations was Jonathan Summers as Iago. Summers found a different vocal timbre for each of Iago’s ‘masks’: gruff soldier, loyal ensign, suave trickster and violent, malicious malefactor. There may have been only brief snatches of Verdian poetry, but this was fitting for a man who has no poetry in his soul. Having closing the shutters to block out the light, Summers also delivered an angry, bitter Credo that convinced of the blackness of his heart. But, no sooner had his master reappeared, than this ensign was amiably and smoking a cigar, a relaxed façade veiling his inner depravity and crookedness.

Gardner summoned wonderful playing from the ENO orchestra, sweeping forward in a whirl of Verdian melodrama. Despite the excellence of many of the parts, this Otello did not quite add up to a complete and compelling whole, but it’s still an impressive and thought-provoking show.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Stuart Skelton, Otello; Leah Crocetto, Desdemona; Jonathan Summers, Iago; Allan Clayton, Cassio; Pamela Helen Stephen, Emilia; Peter Van Hulle, Roderigo; Charles Johnston, Montano; Barnaby Rea, Lodovico; Director, David Alden; Conductor, Edward Gardner; Designer, Jon Morrell; Lighting designer, Adam Silverman; Movement director, Maxine Braham; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London, Saturday, 13th September 2014.

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