Royal Opera House 2021-22 Review: Otello

Christopher Maltman’s Fantastic Iago Gives Keith Warner’s Gloomy Production a Much-Needed Shot in the Arm

By Benjamin Poore
Photo: Clive Barda 2022 ROH

This first revival of Keith Warner’s production of Verdi’s “Otello” (libretto by longstanding collaborator Arrigo Boito) comes with a frisson of contextual excitement. Warner’s expressionist production opened in 2017 starring Gregory Kunde and Jonas Kaufmann, and tried to give the piece a more existentialist reading that turned away from the problems that skin color presents in realizing and casting the opera.

It returns to the Covent Garden stage at the same time as the Arena di Verona’s continued use of blackface makeup for its production of “Aida” led to soprano Angel Blue canceling her engagements with that house. This “Otello” is the first time a black tenor has sung “Otello” on the Covent Garden stage in the form of American Russell Thomas, an experienced exponent of the role. The ROH made much fanfare about this milestone; Thomas himself was more circumspect, seeing it as a sign of the industry’s historic failures. Whatever the angle, one thing is clear: the question of diversity on the stage and racism in the works (and in the industry) are not going away.

The Least Exciting Aspect

Warner’s production itself is perhaps less exciting than some of these conversations, all told, though revival director Isabelle Kettle certainly works wonders with Christopher Maltman’s oily Iago in a well-executed drinking scene. Warner’s raked set – designs by Boris Kudlička – is angular and abstract, built on a V-shape. Various screens hove in and out of view, studded with angular holes, but look like they belong in an overpriced metropolitan hotel and add little to the moods Verdi’s score conjures so well. Costumes suggest an exaggerated sixteenth century, imbued with a kind of nightmarish exaggerated theatricality that suggests a world of performance and grotesquery that Iago turns to his advantage. Iago starts the show by shattering traditional theatrical masks, and poses as a kind of stage manager for the world he builds and then takes apart in Cyprus. 

The candor of the staging works well at times in clearing the ground for psychology and relationship – Iago’s Act two “Credo” gets its impact from voice and text and is wonderfully uncluttered; so too the exquisite love duet – perhaps Verdi’s most erotic, smoldering music – of Otello and Desdemona. But for a staging that cleaves spare there are some oddly fussy features. Why, in the opening scene, do the desperate crowd pass little toy ships around? Verdi’s music is not subtle about the storm that rages, and nor is the narrative in the text. 

Some features feel underdeveloped. An impressive alabaster Winged Lion of St. Mark – the symbol of Venetian authority – zooms dramatically onstage in Act three and then zips off mystifyingly quickly; its shattered remnants creep into view in the final Act, but to little effect. Likewise a striking tableau that appears for mere seconds at the end of Act three – pro-Cassio graffiti presumably orchestrated by Roderigo and Iago – is blink and you’ll miss it. Detailing in Kaspar Glarner’s arresting costumes is lost in the rather dingy lighting from Bruno Poet; though the gleam of the bed sheets in the final scene makes considerable theatrical impact, and the balmy evening glow of the Act two chorus sequence offers summery relief. 

Both stage pictures touch on an interesting thematic possibility for the production which would resonate strongly with Verdi’s other political operas: the sense of a popular uprising fomenting in Cyprus, an unstable frontier of Venetian rule presided over by a general who is losing it. But it is not to be. A central dip in the middle of the stage also clouds the action, and a raised platform stage left on which Otello and Desdemona occasionally appear feels oddly disconnected from the drama. 

The Players in it All

Russell Thomas took the title role. At times the sound felt too hard-edged for the tenderness that has to hum in his scenes with Desdemona, with their love taking time to settle and bloom, though by the end it was exultant. The opening “Esultate” – a make or break moment for the drama – lacked definition, though Thomas’ intonation across the show was unfailingly accurate. As Act two unfolded he found a raw, elemental quality in the role that saw his voice focus and ring with military accuracy – his cries of “Ah! sangue! sangue! Sangue!” in the final peroration exploded off the stage. 

Verdi nearly named the opera for its antagonist – Christopher Maltman made the case for calling it “Iago” crystal clear, with the outstanding vocal performance of the night. Maltman is not a natural Verdi baritone – the sound is less liquid – but he does not want for sheer power nor a varied color palette. The more brusque, sharp-elbowed character of the voice works perfectly with Verdi’s angular, stop-start vocal writing for Iago, which musically wrong-foots us. Maltman has a demonic quality that can either be expressed in steely, naked power through his top notes – see the climax of Act three, and a captivating ‘Credo’ – or the malicious light-footedness of his chromatic, falling figures in the drinking scene.

Hrachuhí Bassénz sang a commanding Desdemona, and works hard to imbue the character with psychological light and shade, both vocally and dramatically. There is enough heft and gleam in the voice, especially above the stave, to suggest she is no pushover, and kicks back against Otello’s insinuation of infidelity with compelling vigor. His disgraceful behavior in Act three, denouncing her in public, puts her incomprehension and despair to the fore, with a voice showcasing remarkable fragility. The “Ave Maria” of Act four had a tremendous tenderness.

Piotr Buszewski sang Cassio with fluidity and panache, with a guileless nobility of tone that triangulated well with Thomas and Maltman. Andrés Presno was a playful, foppish Roderigo; Alexander Köpeczi’s towering bass radiated oaky authority as Lodovico. 

The Successor?

As was the case with his “Macbeth” in the autumn, many eyes were on Daniele Rustioni in the pit, a frontrunner tipped to succeed Antonio Pappano; Rustioni was in the Jette Parker programme at the ROH and has trained directly under Pappano – indeed the man himself was there that night to watch. 

Rustioni offered a well-paced, taut account of Verdi’s darkest score. He shares his mentor’s feeling for sculpted details – not least in iridescent, lightning-flash brass triplets in a thrilling opening scene. In the great Act two love duet the strings were feather-soft and blooming. Textural vivacity – despite some wonky ensemble with the chorus – was a hallmark of the Act two chorus scene with guitar, mandolin, and silvery strings casting a mediterranean glow across the auditorium.

All in all, a polished and stylish account, with Italianate flourish and a sense of wicked fun. It seems inevitable Rustioni will advance to the next round of interviews. He drew fine singing from a chorus who continue to have a very good year indeed. 


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