While the entire opera world turned its attention toward Jonas Kaufmann’s “Otello” debut at the Royal Opera House, another production of Verdi’s famed masterpiece took to the stage in a hotly anticipated run.
The Teatro Colón in Bogotá, Colombia is a small locale when compared to the world’s biggest opera houses, seating a little over 1,000 audience members. With baroque decoration within and a golden hue throughout, it is an intimate setting and even the most distant audience member feels right at home with the singers onstage.
A Symbolic ‘Otello’
The production that the Colón picked for this showcase is none other than the Willy Decker interpretation from Barcelona in 2006 that was famously released on DVD with Jose Cura and Krassimira Stoyanova as Otello and Desdemona respectively.
As one enters the theater, a black and barren stage dominates with only a tall white cross hanging standing on stage right. Unlike most productions of the opera, which ignore the opera’s religious themes, this one relishes in them, the opera opening with Iago throwing cards at the cross in fury as the opening dissonant chord wailed through the theater. This first image essentially established a battle between God and Iago, who declares his allegiance to a cruel God during his famed “Credo” and invokes Satan to aid him in bringing Otello to the second act meeting between Desdemona and Cassio.
This cross is turned to repeatedly throughout the initial stages of the work, mainly for adoration and help with the famed “Dio, fulgor della bufera,” and later in Otello’s great moment of victory right after “Esultate!”
But things start to change as Iago defiles the cross during his Credo, throwing it to the ground with a loud crash that resonates through the theater. Then he starts to walk all over it, a grin on his face as he ridicules the symbol.
At the end of the Act, Otello will take on a violent relationship with the cross, throwing it to the ground repeatedly (an effect that sadly loses its impact after a few times) and then eventually, at the climax of “Dio pel ciel,” destroys it in half on his own knee. It is here that he has perverted the Christian God, invoking him for violence instead of the love that he represents. The broken cross remains throughout the start of Act 3 only to be restored to its place, cut in half, for Desdemona’s “Ave Maria.”
In many ways, the cross itself also represents Otello. While its white color clearly provides a counterpoint to the “blackness” implied by the main character, it is venerated throughout much in the way that he is and his own destructive relationship with it implies his own self-destruction. Iago’s disdain for the item also parallels his hatred for Otello.
When the cross is not in use, the stage, a red tunnel that grows more and more narrow upstage emphasizes the claustrophobic interior world of the hero, the limited space for the actors and overall lack of environment to interact with a suggestion of his empty soul (remember that Otello is essentially an apostate and this production’s religious symbolism further emphasizes the point). The fact that most characters wear white and he is but one of a few to wear a darker hue (Iago also wears a browner color and Rodrigo is decked out in red), also emphasizes how much of an outsider the hero truly is.
A black curtain descends on the stage throughout the proceedings, often just so that supers can remove bits of scenery between scene transitions, but the timing also coincides with many of Iago’s machinations. We see his Credo against this black curtain, his first conversation with Rodrigo, his “Era la notte,” etc. The black, the darkness, was literally Iago’s world.
Confidence But Instability
The cast itself was solid throughout, though the quality of the singing was quite uneven throughout the night.
The title role of Otello is one of the most demanding in the entire tenor repertoire and for many, it is considered the apex of a dramatic tenor career. The demands are not only vocal but also dramatic, the best Otello capable of immersing us both in the internal struggle of the character, essential to having any empathy toward a character that gets one fleeting moment of tenderness and then essentially looks to destroy everything in his path.
At the start of the famed “Esultate,” it was clear that tenor Zoran Todorovich has the vocal goods for the role. His voice is thick with brightness and he pulled through the heroic entrance with complete fearlessness, the climactic B-flat grace note was given extra power and length.
He navigated the trickier vocal passages quite well. And by trickier vocal passages I don’t mean the outpours of sound that are generally associated with the role. By trickier passages I mean the more delicate ones that often seem to cause more challenges for dramatic tenors. Sections such as the entirety of “Gia nella notte densa” where Otello must sing like a romantic hero instead of a brusque warrior. The opening phrases here were delicate, the tenor’s voice taking on a breathier sound, but the legato polished. His ascent into the word “Se dopo l’ira immensa,” grew more and more tender with each word, the “immensa” almost disembodied in sound. But the ensuing “vien quest’immenso amor” featured a passionate vocal accent on “quest” that denoted his intense long. We got a similar taste of vocal beauty during “A questa tua preghiera, Amen, rispondi la celeste schiera,” with the tenor floating the “Amen” sublimely.
The same could be said for the initial phrases in “Dio Mi Potevi,” the tenor’s stretched tempi turning the aria into a full-blooded lament, his voice growing with each phrase, the intensity ratcheting up until he thrust all his vocal resource s with abandon on the repetition of “Spento quel sol, quel sorriso, quel raggio.” His quiet grunts at the start of the Act 4 duet were just as riveting in how he colored each phrase with a sharp articulation in a hushed timbre. “Niun mi tema” was also a magnificent musical interpretation, particularly during the glorious “E tu. Come sei palida,” Todorovich’s voice gentle, each phrase growing quieter and more intimate. He took us to a distant place of peace and love that only Otello and Desdemona ever knew. But with the outcries of “Desdemona,” the spell was broken and suddenly the listener was thrust into the anguish of the moment, which only grew with the enunciations of “Morta.”
Other sections were not quite as secure vocally from the tenor, particularly when Otello is asked to explode into the tenorial stratosphere over a violent orchestra. He pulled off some high notes with eye-opening confidence, including the high B natural at “Amor e gelosia vadan dispersi insieme” and the transposed C natural at the close of the Act 3 duet (“Quella vil Cortigiana”) but then couldn’t quite master the upper range in “Ora e per sempre” or the first B flat on “Raggio” in “Dio mi potevi” or the climax of “Dio pel ciel.” But he masterfully portrayed the instability of the character by just throwing technical caution to the winds and giving it his all. If at times it wasn’t pleasant to the ears, it certainly did the job viscerally.
As the villainous Iago, baritone Nikola Mijailovic gave an aggressive portrayal of the villain. From the first moment that he chucked the cards at the cross, it was clear that this would not be a suave or chameleon-like portrayal. Everything was done with the intention of harming others. His first exchange with Rodrigo sees Iago straddle the line between playing the role of the kind friend, with hints of his horrid temperament. But this portrayal did away with the kindness, Mijailovic singing “Se un fragil voto di femmina” with coarse sound that hinted at his overall disgust. He even subjugated Rodrigo physically throughout this passage, emphasizing Iago’s violent nature.
The drinking song was characterized by exaggerated consonants, which played up the character’s scheming and malevolent plan against the poor Cassio. But perhaps the most effective moment of the night was the “Credo,” the baritone adding a shrill quality to his voice during the longer notes. It was a completely different sound from anything we’d heard before, the vibrato more strident, but the sense of pure unadulterated evil more powerful. There was a harshness in the softer singing of the “Era la notte,” the quietest sections jagged in their phrasing and the baritone even adding vocal ugliness that underlined his grotesque nature. Mijailovic’s towering figure also aided the situation as he often stood over Otello. His laugh at the end of Act 3 was the final expression of this unadulterated evil that only made the viewer hate him all the more. If not necessarily a multi-faceted exploration of an evil schemer, Mijailovi’s interpretation oozed evil and anger at every moment.
Soprano Gulnara Shafigullina poses a dark and husky voice which was a far cry from the more delicate portrayals of Desdemona one might be used to. But she used this more dramatic voice to strong effect, particularly in her confrontation scenes with Otello. Her vocal resources and weight matched his blow for blow during the second part of that duet and her “E son l’innocente cagion di tanto pianto” was one of the breathtaking emotional releases of the night, her voice erupting through the Colón. But her most riveting moments came in the final act’s double “arias.” For one, the Willow song started off with a very thin and delicate sound, the likes of which had not been present at all throughout the rest of the night. Whereas we grew accustomed to hearing a meatier sound, here it was but a thread that gradually wove itself into something darker and more resonant. Each time the words “Salce” were repeated, one could sense a gradual crescendo from Shafigullina. They didn’t die down, but grew with desperation, each repetition growing faster. That build climaxed beautifully in Desdemona’s outpour to Emilia, “Emilia addio.”
The subsequent “Ave Maria” was even more subdued vocally than the start of the willow song, pulling the listener in. The final A flat that soars at the end of the aria floated and faded into the atmosphere becoming a part of it, the end of the note almost impossible to hear. If vocal finesse was what you craved, Shafigullina delivered that with dramatic introspection and beauty.
Lamentably, Some Disappointments
But it wasn’t all great dramatic singing.
Perhaps the most disappointing solo performance of the night came from tenor Christian Sturm as Cassio. He possesses delicate and elegant lyric sound in his middle range, but, at least on evidence of this performance, possesses no upper range. I constantly questioned whether he might be covering throughout the night because it seemed that every time he was commanded to ascend into the tenor’s passaggio and beyond, he simply lacked the vocal strength to produce an adequate sound, opting for a hushed whisper of a voice that was barely audible. Original promotions for the opera had tenor Dino Lüthy as the original interpreter of the role but no announcement about a cancellation or illness was made, leaving one to assume that Sturm simply didn’t have the goods to sing the role.
The opera’s chorus was also quite a disappointment throughout with entire passages of music sloppily executed. The opening “Dio, fulgor della bufera,” a cathartic and arresting musical moment was out of synch with the orchestra. The first chorus “Vittoria!” showed signs of what was to come, the chorus missing numerous entrances. The “Fuoco di gioia” was the earsore of the night, the chorus running in one direction and the orchestra in another. At one point I wondered whether they might ever get back together. I don’t usually enjoy cuts, but was happy that the Act 2 chorus lost its middle section with mandolins, simply to avoid more disappointment from the chorus. And while the clumsy coordination continued throughout the pezzo concertato in Act 3, credit must be given where it is due: the incredible crescendo at the climax in this glorious masterwork of a section was visceral and imposing. Despite an overall chaotic night, the chorus did save the best for last, making me almost forget the rest of the evening’s mishaps.
Maestro Hilary Griffiths did his best in the pit amidst some challenging circumstances. The pit in the Colón is quite small and a large portion of the orchestra, mainly the brass section was hidden beneath the stage. That created balance issues with the brass section either having to overcompensate at times and at others simply not being heard. The score seemed to push the ensemble to its limits with the first violins creating some harsh sounds in some of the upper sections. This was particularly noticeable at the start of Iago’s “Era la notte” where the initial sounds were not only out of tune, but the sound quality grated a bit. We also got a few weird harmonies at the end of “Ave Maria.” After a beautifully played cello solo to kick off “Gia nella notte densa,” the quartet was off-pitch on the first chord and some odd portamentos from two of the players took away from the sense of harmonic and melodic unity one comes to expect from this section. At other times Griffiths’ tempi simply didn’t seem to correspond with any of the people onstage. This was particularly noticeable with Mijailovic who seemed at times intent on stretching a few lines but found himself behind the orchestra. At other times, most noticeably during the fiendish “Questa è una agna dove il tuo cuor,” the baritone seemed uncomfortable with the quicker tempo that Griffiths took on, the entire section feeling on edge.
But thank God for that fourth act which featured truly incredible playing all around, the haunting woodwind ensemble that kicks off the act interpreted with a sense urgency and yet an expansiveness. The entrance of the basses in the opera’s final scene was foreboding, the instrumentalists adding an aggressive quality to their playing that emphasized Otello’s foreboding presence.
One final note on the orchestra – the kiss motif, which is repeated three times was gorgeously interpreted at every single juncture, the listener left feeling with the sense of something glorious opening up before him or her.
Even with its shortcomings, Verdi’s “Otello” is a seminal masterpiece that demands to be listened to every single time it is performed. This production, with its immersive quality and overall solid performances from the leads, fits this bill as well.