Royal Opera House 2019-20 Review: Otello
Verdi Repressed in Reductive Production With Disappointing Turns from Kunde, Alvarez & JahoBy Sophia Lambton
(Credit: Catherine Ashmore / ROH)
Smothered in monochrome, Keith Warner’s 2017 production of Verdi’s “Otello” is a humorless parody of art deco design. Tar-colored towers hold its personages in a chokehold; escorting them onstage with sliding trays resembling CD player disc drives.
Vertical slots in the abyss and square-shaped patterns often visible on casual sweaters sever the obscurity. In its enclosure the protagonists are arbitrarily attired: at times accoutered in the costumes of the opera’s period; at times enrobed in clown-like dress. Amidst computer-generated growing doors recalling girl bands’ onstage entrances throughout the 1990s and a giant marble lion there’s little that the cast can do to salvage Verdi’s realism.
Unleashed but Nowhere to Go
In the title role tenor Gregory Kunde unleashed bombastic barbarity; molding an Otello more uncivilized than zealous. Where the former ends and the latter begins is a challenging question for any Otello – but Kunde allowed the protagonist’s hubris to hamper his vocal performance.
The tenderness in his duet with Desdemona “Già nella notte densa” was scarce; eschewing the character’s masked vulnerability. Studying his bride, the warrior should be transfixed with adoration. Instead his recollection of her face – comparing her expression to the heaven and the stars – grew arrogant with an elaborate crescendo over “paradiso” too abrupt to appear lovestruck. Alone at last with his enamored bride, Kunde’s Otello offered her a presentation rather than a passionate avowal: “l’ira immensa (immense rage)” wavered unstably in volume. Meanwhile, the directive of “vien” (“come”) was too affectatious. It makes sense for the warlord’s potency to leak out even unbeknownst to him. But Kunde’s sudden drops in volume, precariously loud notes and struggling intervals endangered both his pitch and equally Otello’s taut tenacity.
Because the character started out the opera as a man with little self-control, no change took place when he succumbed to Iago’s forceful fables.
During “Ora e per sempre addio, sante memorie (Farewell for now and ever, sacred memories),” Kunde’s Otello sang in a perplexingly triumphal tone; suggesting bloodlust for his wife was as predictable a spasm as a lust erotic. This Otello oscillated between the crooked portraits of a gallery of rages; under their misguided influence his notes fell prey to frequent insecurity.
Calculated Diminuendi & Tempi Shifts
Incarnating the innocuous Desdemona, Ermonela Jaho crafted her voice to capture the unknowing wife’s docility by slenderizing sections of her instrument – especially her high notes, which were somewhat shrunken in abrupt diminuendi. Struggling with certain passages like “gli spasimi sofferti (the pains you suffered)” in the “Già nella notte” duet, Jaho also had to sneak in tacit breaths to properly sustain the role’s prophetic low notes. Her premeditated diminuendi – such as the one enlacing “Amen, risponda” at the love duet’s end – emerged well calculated and superbly delicate.
The same could be said of some phrases in “The Willow Song”– where the demure trio of “salice…. salice… salice” was wrapped in a diffident, deftly dealt diminuendo. Pathos was palpably elicited when Emilia asked who had murdered the dying Desdemona and her response, in a scarcely existent soft voice, was: “Nessuno… io stessa… (No one… I did it myself).”
On account of instability across the top and bottom registers and intermittent issues with her breath control, the part was nonetheless bereft of consummate conditioning.
Assembling different tempi for the various stages of his Iago’s plots, Carlos Álvarez offered a display of the destructive knave’s decisive moments. From the beginning of the work his baritone was boldly lined with villainous resolve; dynamics were determined, rhythms fixed according to the map of Iago’s cruel conspiracy. Spouting self-important, lackadaisical imperatives of “Beva, beva” in the first scene, he was equally convincing as a servile lackey when Otello entered and he calmly claimed he didn’t know what caused the conflict he deliberately provoked.
Vocal traps besieged the singer nonetheless. Espousing Iago’s notorious axiom, “Credo in un Dio crudel,” Álvarez gave in too much to Iago’s confidence: breaking the master’s ironclad determination with disorderly expulsions of his wrath. Subtler moments, such as the tension with which he charged the anticipatory “E poi…” were made eerie behind a duplicitous smile. On other occasions the baritone overdid Iago’s pretense; dangerously risking a jester’s expressions.
Freddie De Tommaso invigorated Cassio with a youthful belligerence in his use of dynamics but also endangered his top notes with forcefulness. Frozen in fright at Desdemona’s murder, Catherine Carby’s Emilia sustained enough vibrato to lend the scene eeriness without losing the sheen of her instrument.
Adhering to traditional tempi for most of the score, Antonio Pappano drove the orchestra to dominate proceedings with its devilish embodiment of Verdi’s darkest opera. Alacrity was manifest throughout but purity was lacking. Effervescent in its underbelly of propulsive lower strings, the orchestra deprived its surface of a similarly smooth tonality; ceding to off-pitch brass and muffled woodwind with a noticeable regularity.
When the solo cello marked the entrance of “Già nella notte” it was paradoxically bold; divesting the lovers of intimacy with its absence of subtlety. In a completely different context the same could be said for the solo cor anglais before the “Canzone del salice:” it unfolded the sad fable of Barbara in a prominent fashion bereft of portentousness. Sour brass unfortunately hindered the effect the final chords which suffered from a lack of synchronicity.
Drenched in the dreary backdrop of a set whose matte black bars and slots create a half-made grid, the bland production suffered from pervasive signs of pantomime both visually and in its’ players crafts. With the exception of the orchestra’s conducting which embraced the Romantic music and Shakespearean twists, the eeriness created by it didn’t center on Otello’s plight but rather Verdi’s: haplessly held hostage in this maelstrom of mundanity.