At the end of the final act, Otello has just killed Desdemona and he stands at the front of the stage, facing the audience. From the back of the stage Desdemona reappears and approaches Otello. Standing beside him, she simulates the taking of a knife from its sheath, raises it and plunges it into her belly, and Otello, taking a real knife, follows suit, and kills himself. He then rises and the couple hand in hand, reunited in their love, walk into the starry heavens which had acted as a motif throughout the evening, as the curtain falls. After a momentary pause, the audience exploded into ecstatic applause, shouts of “bravi” ringing throughout the auditorium. Anyone entering the theatre for these final minutes of the Teatro Filarmonico, Verona’s production of “Otello” could have been forgiven for thinking that they had just missed what must have been a stunning first-class performance.
Art, Not Artifice
Sadly, this was not the case, especially if you prefer your tragedies hard-boiled. The softening of the ending so that Desdemona and Otello triumph in death over Iago’s machinations gave the opera a sentimental gloss which it does not possess. Surely, it is its exploration of evil and its devastating impact on the world that gives the work its power. Iago’s escape at the end of the opera is not a casual throwaway decision by Verdi and Boito, but surely symbolic of evil’s permanent presence in our lives. Desdemona and Otello’s lives (as well as others) have been completely destroyed. The possibility of an afterlife paradise is hardly the point, and one that Otello himself would undoubtedly be barred from entering, given that he had just murdered his wife to quench his own passions. Of course, living as we do in an age in which sentimentality appears to be the default emotional response to almost anything, such endings resonate, and are almost guaranteed to be successful. But Verdi’s “Otello” is art, not artifice, and deserves better.
In many other respects, however, the original director Francesco Michele alongside the director for this revival, Giorgia Guerra, aided by the production team of Edoardo Sanchi (scenographer), Silvia Aymonino (costumes) and Fabio Barettin (Lighting) created a visually attractive and dynamically well-paced reading of the work. The sets were simple, yet functional, and the internal scenes within the palazzo were colorful and evocative – golden hexagonal designs on the walls with many cushions and carpets spread upon the floors, all bathed in a blue light, suggestive of Otello’s moorish origins.
For other scenes, the set revolved to reveal a background of star systems. A transparent curtain was occasionally lowered in front of the on-stage action depicting yet more star systems, behind which the singers performed. This allowed the light to be diffused and created some visually satisfying effects, although when directors employ this device they always run the risk of distancing the action and compromising the sound, which did, indeed, happen in this case. The directors handling of the choral scenes was powerfully executed, although having them carry model ships did not work, even if the reason behind the decision was sound. Other directorial decisions can also be said to have been unsuccessful. A case in point was the decision to have Iago occasionally lying in bed during the first two acts. Regardless of the reasoning behind this decision, the effect was simply stupefying and added to the diminishment of Iago’s character. Yet, there was always a good dynamic to the drama, scenes were well-choreographed and always held the audience’s attention.
If the production could, therefore, be classed as inconsistent then the same can equally be said about the musical side of the performance. Whilst none of the principal singers may be described as being below the standards expected from a good quality cast, neither did they perform to a consistently high level, being unable to fully dominate their roles, very good though certain aspects of their singing were.
The role of Otello was essayed by Kristian Benedikt, who having performed the role over a hundred times in many of the world’s leading opera houses, including the Staatsoper, Munich and the Mariinski in St. Petersburg may thus be considered a specialist in the part. Certainly, he suits it well. Physically big, he has the presence and stature to convince in the role. His voice is strong, with a suitably dark timbre. His phrasing of the vocal line was intelligently crafted and exhibited style and subtlety, honed and refined by his years of experience gained from his immersion in the role. In the many dramatic scenes, in which he was at his best, he brought vocal depth and intensity, Yet, this was far from a perfect performance. At times, he lacked spontaneity and even appeared occasionally to be going through the motions, no doubt a result of his overfamiliarity with the part. This was particularly true in the first act, and most notably in the closing duet with Desdemona, “Già nella notte.” The emotional connection between the singers was minimal, both finding it difficult to respond to each other’s gestures and cues, both appearing to be concentrating on their own parts. However, this failing became less in evidence as the opera progressed. As the intensity increased Benedikt’s vocal performance lost its occasional leaden quality and its flexibility grew, which in turn led to some exciting confrontations with Desdemona. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about his acting which was at all times awkward.
Too Clean For Evil
The role of Iago needs a singer with a very strong stage presence, and moreover, one that can successfully portray the subtleties of the character; he must be charming, attractive and honest on the surface, yet able to convey the menace and evil that lies within his heart. Certainly, he must be charismatic. He must be a first-rate singing-actor, excellent singing on its own just will not suffice. Vladimir Stoyanov, who recently so successfully convinced in the role of Renato in “Un Ballo in Maschera” at La Fenice, unfortunately made no such impression in the role of Iago. His voice has a pleasing timbre, it is nimble and agile, and secure across the range. Furthermore, he displays a consistently high level of technical excellence. Yet, for all this, Stoyanov was unable to bring the necessary depth and insight to the role. His Iago lacked gravitas, and there was no trace of the cold cynicism that defines his character. His presence was weak, one never felt in the presence of evil; he was never menacing!
Iago’s credo, “Credo in un Dio crudel,” delivered without the necessary venom, slipped by, and so did the opportunity to establish Iago’s underlying hatred and malevolence. Moreover, for sheer power, Stoyanov’s voice never matched Benedikt or Zenattin’s, and was occasionally forced into the background. Overall, Stoyanov’s undoubted, and normally so pleasing, vocal talents were not suitably applied in this role.
Drama Over Beauty & Naivety
Otello’s wife, Desdemona, was played by Monica Zanettin, and although there was much to enjoy, like Benedikt and Stoyanov, she gave an uneven performance. Her voice is dramatically strong, with a palette of rich colors. Her upper register, in particular, possessed a beautiful tone and clarity. In the confrontation scenes she was feisty and formidable, her singing accented and expressive, and despite the occasional awkward moment transitioning between registers, produced engaging encounters with Otello. The naivety one expects of Otello’s young wife, however, was entirely absent, magnified by her sacrifice of vocal beauty for dramatic effect. However, almost to prove a point, her singing of the “Ave Maria” in the final act was beautifully rendered.
In the minor roles, Mert Sungu made an excellent impression as Cassio. Both his acting and singing displayed versatility and strength. He possesses a strong presence and produced a nuanced and convincing reading of the role. Alessandra Nadin made an equally impressive contribution as Desdemona’s nurse, Emilia – it would certainly be interesting to witness her perform in a more substantial role. Romano Dal Zovo, as Ludovico, also put in a solid vocal portrayal, although his acting lacked subtlety. Francesco Pittari played the part of Roderigo, and displayed vocal quality, if at times, a little underpowered. In the role of Montano was Nicolò Ceriani, whose acting and singing also suitably convinced.
The chorus under the direction of Vito Lombardi performed reasonably well, although the curtain in front of the stage which separated them from the audience did them no favors at all, masking their movements and distancing the sound. Paolo Facincani, responsible for the children’s chorus did a splendid job, and had the children performing at a high level.
Solid If Not Great
The Orchestra dell’Arena di Verona under the baton of Antonino Fogliani produced an energetic and enjoyable performance. It maintained a vibrant consistency in driving the narrative forward. Although sometimes lacking a degree of subtlety, the drama was never compromised. Individual sections, notably the brass, performed well and the singers were always provided with the necessary support and space.
Despite the unsatisfactory ending, which compromised the very nature of the tragedy itself, this was not a poor production, and to be fair, even the ending was unlikely to have detracted from the production for the majority of the audience, who seemed to revel in its sentimentality. Michele and Guerra created an engaging momentum that allowed the drama to flow, the mise-en-scene, bathed in colorful warm lighting, were imaginative and evocative and, overall, the choreography was well-thought through and unobtrusive, notwithstanding some heavy-footed movement from Otello. Likewise, the musical side of the work, although not without its weaknesses was certainly very good in parts.
If inconsistency was the defining impression, it certainly was not fatal.