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Daniel Magdal as Otello and Valentin Vasiliu as Iago [Photo by Gin Photo courtesy of the Romanian National Opera Bucharest]
15 Dec 2014

Otello in Bucharest — Moor’s the pity

Bulgarian director Vera Nemirova’s production of Otello for the Romanian National Opera in Bucharest was certainly full of new ideas — unfortunately all bad.

Otello in Bucharest — Moor’s the pity

A review by Jonathan Sutherland

Above: Daniel Magdal as Otello and Valentin Vasiliu as Iago

Photos by Gin Photo courtesy of the Romanian National Opera Bucharest

 

Known to European opera-goers for her work in Frankfurt (and also the less than triumphant Lulu in Salzburg four years ago) Madame Nemirova’s conception of Otello for Bucharest was a single idée fixe. As Sherlock Holmes might have put it: ‘The Case of the Incriminating Handkerchief’. The fazzoletto in question took on such overwhelming significance at one point during the superb concertante ensemble E un dì sul mio sorriso in Act III, the sky was literally snowing with ragged pieces of white cloth which were certainly a far cry from the fine cambric (un tessuto trapunto a fior e più sottil d’un velo) specified in the text. The ubiquitous hanky first made a surprise appearance falling from the sky during Otello’s Già nella notte densa scena making no sense of his statement to Iago in Act II that he gave it to Desdemona when they first met (il fazzoletto ch’io le diedi, pegno primo d’amor).

The single stage set design by Viorica Petrovici was a steeply raked stone-stepped ersatz piazza with two ugly metal balconies/fire escapes, metal railings and a Giacometti-esque tree at the back. It would appear that the Venetian Republic’saccounting departmentweren’t wasting any money on lavish quarters for their gubernatorial representatives. Not only was Desdemona deprived of her prie-dieu, she didn’t get a bedroom — or even a bed. The Salce salce aria in Act IV was sung à la Manon Lescaut outside among the detritus of fallen fazzoletti left over from the previous act. The staging was also a long way from 15th century Cyprus. It was possibly intended to be contemporary Lampedusa or even somewhere in Sicily as there seemed to be an abundance of persecuted Albanian refugee types mixed with the odd Mafiosi and carabinieri.

Liviu Indric_u (Cassio) Marius Bolo_ (Lodovico) Iulia Isaev (Desdemona) Daniel Magdal (Otello) Valentin Vasiliu (Iago).png

Otello was rescued from the storm in a rubber dinghy but the leone di San Marco’s entrance and triumphant Esultate! was made nowhere near the stage or dinghy but from the stage-right parterre loge with Desdemona at his side — presumably an unscripted stowaway. The rubber dinghy turns into ‘The Love Boat’ as the locus of Otello and Desdemona’s conjugal bliss at the end of Act I. It seems the Venetians, at least in warmer Cyprus, were keen on al fresco fornication. The drunken brawl between Cassio and Montano in Act I was not fought with the customary swords but with street-gang style broken bottles. Unfortunately the bottles were plastic which made Montano’s serious wounding unlikely and Otello’s imperious command to Abbasso le spade! rather hyperbolic. Caporegimento Iago’s dramatic Act II scena and aria Credo in un Dio crudel was sung sitting on the edge of the stage with his legs hanging over the orchestra pit and the house-lights turned on, presumably to indicate the veracity of his Machiavelli/mafioso mentality or perhaps to keep the audience from dozing off. This was hardly likely given the violent blasts from the brass section of the orchestra. Instead of receiving tributes of flowers from the Cypriot children in Act II ( T’offriamo il giglio, soave stel) Desdemona gives the kiddies small sheets of paper to make paper planes. The projectiles then waft through the air portending the appearance of the flying fazzoletti in the next Act. In keeping with the conceit of a Sicilian setting and cosa nostra traditions, at the end of the great Act II duet Sì, pel ciel marmoreo guiro, Otello and Iago cut themselves across the chest and then embrace to seal the deal with a blood pact of homicidal corpuscles. Perhaps confusing Otello with Pagliacci, Madame Nemirova has Otello paint black war-paint splodges and stripes on his very white face during his Act III aria Dio! mi potevi, despite the fact that Otello’s natural blackness is frequently referred to in the libretto (ho sul viso quest’atro tenebror). The end result is a rather pasty, chubby-grubby, non-descript, ineffectual individual with a kink for Goth. The important official ducal document ordering Otello’s return to Venice (una pergamena avvoltata) was a miserable scrap of paper Lodovico’s cleaning lady might have used for a laundry list. Obviously there was also no ducal seal for Otello to kiss (Io bacio il segno della Sovrana Maestà). The final soi disant coup de théâtre was during Otello’s dying moments whenIago appears in the stage-right box and turns to the audience as if rendering judgment on his successful machinations. Mephistopheles meets Simon Cowell.

Mercifully the musical side of the performance was vastly less irritating. The coro trained by 86 year old chorus master Stelian Olariu was consistently impressive, paid scrupulous attention to the dynamic markings of the score and sang with impeccable diction. Fortunately they also somehow managed to get through Act III without the blizzard of falling handkerchiefs clogging their throats. There were a few synchronization problems with the orchestra in the Act II cross rhythm ensemble with children’s choir (T’offriamo il giglio, soave stel) and later in the animando sempre poco a poco conclusion to Act III beginning with Desdemona’s ed or, l’angoscia in viso. One suspects this was more to do with poor ensemble control from the podium than choral lassitude.

Adrian Morar conducted with unspectacular dependability, although his reading tended to lack breadth and the orchestral balance was often unsatisfactory, particularly in most of the woodwind section, which seemed incapable of playing anything less than mezzo-forte. There was no organ for the ominous pedal which underpins the opening Una vela! Una vela! chorus and other instrumentation was either omitted or reduced. With a total of only 22 first and second violins, the soaring string sound which is necessary to balance the formidable orchestration for brass and percussion was generally absent. While for most of the score the flutes had the requisite dolce timbre, bassoons were almost always too loud and the cor anglais solo passages in Salce salce were jarringly intrusive (the scores indicates nothing louder than piano and more often pianissimo). There were intonation and rhythmic inconsistencies with the double basses in the long F Minor solo poco piu mosso passage preceding Otello’s entrance in Act IV although there was some particularly lyrical and sensitive cello playing during the introduction to the Già nella notte densa duet in Act I. Horns were raspy (not such a bad thing) but often made slightly imprecise and wobbly entries.

Of the principle singers Cassio, Desdemona and especially Iago, were more than satisfactory. The Cassio of Liviu Indricău had credible stage presence, a clearly focused voice in all ranges and an excellent bright ringing top. His singing of Miracolo vago dell’aspo e dell’ago in the Act II duet with Iago displayed sound legato and an attractive cantilena. Iulia Isaev as Desdemona was clearly the crowd favourite and received a standing ovation at the final curtain calls. Looking rather like Karita Mattila with blond hair and voluptuous bosom, she sang with commendable fidelity to the score and sensitivity to the exceptionally poetic libretto. Her long set piece ‘Salce salce’ in Act IV was well paced, displayed a warm legato and an ability to shape the long Verdian vocal line. The Ab at the end of the final arpeggio was a tad rushed but showed a Tebaldi-like vibrato- free top which was particularly agreeable. If there was any criticism it was a slight lack of power in the big ensembles, but there are not many Mirella Freni’s out there who can ratchet up the fortissimi to soar over massed chorus, soloists and orchestra. The Iago of Valentin Vasiliu showed complete commitment to the role, both vocally and dramatically. With a combination of the snarling marcato of Leo Nucci and the insinuating lyricism of Piero Cappuccilli, Mr Vasiliu is a first-rate baritone with strong projection and measured mezzopiano. His Italian diction was also excellent. Of the smaller roles, the Emilia of Sorana Negrea was dramatically convincing but a little under-voiced, especially in the important confrontation with Otello at the end of Act IV. The Lodovico of Marius Boloş was vocally weak and dramatically implausible as the Emissary of the Doge and Senate of Venice. His appearance in an ill-fitting tuxedo merely enforced a total lack of gravitas. It was hard to find anything to admire about the Otello of guest artist Daniel Magdal. Yes, he could certainly belt out top Gs, As and Bb’s but that was all. There was no legato technique and his phrasing, if it existed at all, was invariably clipped short. Chest and low register notes were lacking in vocus, parlando passages were perfunctory and any attempt at piano disappeared down his doublet. Unfortunately Mr Magdal’s physical appearance matched his vocal shortcomings. Instead of the utterly dominating physical stage presence one experienced with James McCracken, Jon Vickers or Plácido Domingo as the intimidating intemperate warrior, all we had was a pale, paunchy, pouting, petit-bourgeois with a leather fetish. Considering the quality of the other protagonists, this irksome production deserved a much better title-role tenor.

Jonathan Sutherland


Cast and production information:

Otello: Daniel Magdal, Iago: Valentin Vasiliu, Cassio: Liviu Indricău, Roderigo: Valentin Racoveanu, Lodovico: Marius Boloş, Montano: Iustinian Zetea, Araldo: Dan Indricău, Desdemona: Iulia Isaev, Emilia: Sorana Negrea. Romanian National Opera Bucharest 27th November 2014 Conductor: Adrian Morar, Direction: Vera Nemirova, Stage design: Viorica Petrovici, Chorus Master: Stelian Olariu, Choreography: Smaranda Morgovan.

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