Royal Opera House Review 2016-17 – Otello: Jonas Kaufmann Cements His Legacy As One of History’s Great Otellos

By Francisco Salazar

Jonas Kaufmann has been hailed as the greatest tenors alive and is one of the most exciting performers currently working today. So it was no surprise that he would one day take the iconic role of Verdi’s “Otello.” There were many doubters regarding his availability (or ability) to master the role, especially after many high-profile cancellations due to illness. However, the tenor arrived just fine on Wednesday, June 28, 2017, to give one of the most gut-wrenching performances of his career.

A Historic Otello

Kaufmann has one of most beautiful timbres there are, his instrument possessing the flexibility to move from finessed legati to a more brutal and raw force. He displayed the full range of these abilities with his interpretation of the famed Moor.

His opening “Esultate” was delivered with a heroic pose on top of a bench, showcasing his power. This was confident man beloved by the people at the top of his game. He hit the B natural grace note without any seeming effort and it rang with power in the house, his gaze fixed on his beloved Desdemona (Maria Agresta).

His second entrance “Abbasso le spade” saw Kaufmann enter from upstage, vigor, and sense of authority at its peak. One immediately got the sense of a man in complete control, his movements calculated as he went straight to Iago to ask what had happened. “Gia nella notte densa” is a troubling passage for some Otello interpreters, their heavy voices unable to truly melt into the delicate phrasing Verdi calls for. But Kaufmann was spot on here, caressing each moment with a smooth sound, the first phrases pianissimo, eventually crescendoing in the more heroic moments without ever going full bombast. He always kept the line refined, following Agrestas’ pure tone. During the “Un Bacio” passage, that most glorious of musical moments,  Kaufmann imbued warmth into his sound that matched Agresta’s silky tone, both relishing the moment as they hugged and kissed.  During the final notes, they turned away from the audience as they moved toward the bedroom chambers, their voices meshing well to create a dream-like quality.

The second Act might be one of the great acting challenges of the opera, the tenor transforming from the great hero into a vengeful monster. Whereas many tenors go unhinged at an accelerated pace, Kaufmann kept his cool. He attacked Iago in disbelief and his B natural right before the “Dove guardi” was delivered with authority and defiance. During the quartet, however, that finesse started to obtain more choppy phrasing. We could see this start to creep into the interpretation in “Ora e per sempre” and “Si pel ciel,” where power and might overpowered any sense of finesse and overall polish. As he looked into a mirror and saw a black mask, Kaufmann started throwing things around in chaotic fashion. We could now sense that he was losing control.

The first image of the third Act was Kaufmann at the center of the stage. The first impression was that Otello was back in control, but with Iago lurking in the shadows, Kaufmann’s Otello looked weakened, especially with Iago entering shortly after.

During the subsequent duet with Desdemona, Kaufmann began with a smooth and ardent tone that matched the opening duet. But the phrasing soon took on a staccato quality, the lyric tone focused on emoting and the high register turned more violent and raw. And yet, he accomplished this without yelling or overdoing any single attack in the voice. The duet also had many violent moments as Kaufmann took Agresta and pushed her to the wall trapping her without a way out. But it never got to the point of rape. During the “Vil cortigiana” moment Kaufmann could barely look at her as she was far back and he was downstage. In this particular section, we could sense his remorse, which was amplified during “Dio mi potevi” as Kaufmann sang with a pure tone that connected each phrase, each pianissimo more beautiful that the one before. The aria turned into a lament, and yet one could sense that he still clung to some hope of Desdemona’s innocence.

But in the subsequent trio, Kaufmann’s Otello once again retained a violent character. The concertato showed it best. There was sarcasm in each line he sang before taking Desdemona and throwing her to the floor. After his brutal behavior, he ran to the corner almost as a child, still grappling with a sense of guilt and confusion. But then Marco Vratogna’s Iago walked over to him spewing more hate into his ear. As the concertato built to the climax, Kaufmann interrupted with “Fuggite,” a loud cry in full voice. The tenor turned away from the crowd after sending his wife away with a piercing A sharp, his madness in full display as he immediately went to the floor gasping for air, each phrase delivered with less and less power. And when Vratogna forced the black mask on him Kaufmann struggled to try to take it off. This was no longer a man in control but a pawn who had gone mad.

The final scene was one of the most memorable scenes I have seen in opera. Kaufmann appeared through a mirror almost as a shadow of Desdemona. The look on his face was of a possessed being and he entered the set quietly with a sword in his hand. He went toward his Desdemona, who was lying on the floor. As the music rampantly announced the footsteps, he took his sword as if to behead her. However, the love music returned and Kaufmann put the sword down and kissed her face. When she awoke, his tranquil face turned back to the tormented figure. He quickly chased Desdemona to the bed, his voice growing in its power and erratic nature. He took by her hands and as he sang he took a pillow and strangled her. Kaufmann’s face filled with triumph and madness at the same time in one of the most twisted moments of the evening.

When he finally discovered the truth, he took Iago and threatened him with the sword. Unfortunately, Kaufmann’s Otello was too weak by this point and he could not finish the deed. Kaufmann went on to sing “Niun Mi Tema” with great restraint and caressed the lines “E tu… Come sei palida!” as he looked towards his Desdemona. His voice weakened throughout, but the emotion intensified. When he finally stabbed himself, Kaufmann let out his full power in his voice resonating throughout the auditorium. One felt this Otello’s remorse and pain. The blood gushing through his shirt, Kaufmann quickly went to the bed and lay on his chest. As he sang the “Un altro Bacio,” his sound grew weaker as if he couldn’t breathe and his movement slowed to a crawl. He gasped on the final “Bacio,” dying on the instant, but leaving the audience with a memory so potent and powerful that can never be forgotten. Kaufmann is now undeniably the greatest Otello interpreter of his time.

A conniving Iago

If Kaufmann had a triumphant night, Marco Vratogna was not far behind. Vratogna was basically in every scene, his presence growing more and more potent throughout. He entered the stage holding a white mask and a black mask. When he threw the white mask the music immediately rumbled into the auditorium. Vratogna moved about the stage lining up Cassio and Rodrigo, interacting with each one. From the get-go, you knew he was in control. Vratogna began his interactions with Rodrigo almost in a sexual way as he threw him to the ground and went on top of him slithering each phrase like a snake. His interpretation of the drinking song was one of force and conviction. There was a very clear snarl to it as he sang each line and his repetitions of “Bevi.” He even extended the coloratura almost as if laughing at Cassio.

During the end of the love duet, Vratogna entered as an ominous shadow. Before the stage went black, he kicked off the second act, moving demonically into the famed “Credo.” He sang with force as the tone obtained a cruder color. During the second half of the aria, Vratogna started to decrescendo into a piano sound. There was even some beauty to his “E poi?” But it was interrupted by his heroic final note and his quick bursts into laughter. His manipulation of Otello was a game for him, each line more conversational in delivery, the clarity of text getting the priority. When Kaufmann grabbed him, Vratogna quickly ignored him and continued the spewing of lies. His “Era la notte,” was sung with delicate timbre and a smoothness of tone that could easily convince anyone that this Iago was honest. He sang with poise and refinement, it almost felt like he was telling the truth. Vratogna initiated his first entrance of “Si pel ciel” with a mezzo forte sound, slowly building and equaling the power of Kaufmann’s Otello. This musical transformation gave us a clue as to who was in control.

The third Act saw Vratogna shadowing Kaufmann’s Otello, entering the stage only to spew more hate. And in the trio, he delivered his brief patter with playfulness, clearly relishing in his actions. The concertato saw Vratogna once again move from one character to the next, each time telling them something new. In his interaction with Otello, the idea of a legato line was gone. Vratogna’s phrasing was staccato at best but more often emoting, which was extremely effective for this conniving character.

The crowning moment of his victory was the final moment in Act three. As he says “Ecco il Leone” Vratogna sang with full boom and stepped on Otello. He then went on to force the black mask almost as if choking him to death. It was the figurative death of Otello. Vratogna’s Iago was pure evil in his final moments as he slit Emilia’s throat and ran around the stage threatening everyone with a sword. Even as he is arrested, one could sense that he would not fully pay for his horrid crimes.

A Pure Voice

If Kaufmann and Vratogna were dramatic forces, Maria Agresta gave a performance of pure lyrical beauty. Her voice always maintained a gorgeous full tone but also possessed true dramatic weight. Her opening lines were sung with purity, spinning the pianos and crescendoing to the mezzo fortes. The connectedness in the voice allowed audiences to see that this was a Desdemona completely in love with Otello and one that was incapable of doing harm. Her face filled with joy as she interacted with Kaufmann and caressed his face.

During the chorus “Dove guardi,” Agresta textured her sound, moving effortlessly from forte to piano. Even when she made the case for Cassio, her voice had warmth and tenderness.

But Agresta’s performance was not limited to simply beautiful singing, perhaps the most moving moments coming in her Act three confrontation with Otello. She started off with a soothing sound before finally letting out all her power and rawness of her voice. In the climactic moment of the duet, the voice blasted out into the auditorium with aplomb, Desdemona’s tears visceral. “Quella parola orrenda” was delivered with a correspondingly horrendous sound, a gut punch to the listener. In the concertato, Agresta was also in full vocal bloom, her timbre rising over the chorus and orchestra.

And then there were the show-stopping “Salce” song and “Ave Maria.” She began the scene picking up flowers before dropping them out of fear. Her face filled with pain during the “Salce” song and in many moments, it felt like she was mad. The repetitions of “Salce”  took on an airy tone as she started piano and died down. Each repetition of the phrase intensified, the sound stronger and then dying down faster. Her voice exploded with passion during “Emilia Addio,” the sense of foreboding wrenching. She employed a mezza voce quality to the “Ave Maria,” drawing the listener in and adding to the increasing sense of madness and vulnerability in Desdemona. As she hit the final “Amen” on the A flat, her voice died down, the sound lingering as she slowly fell to the floor.

Rounding out the cast      

Frederic Antoun sang Cassio with an ardent tone. He moved about with youthfulness and in the drinking song he sang with accents that really made the character sound drunk. Thomas Adkins’ was a confident Rodrigo while Kai Ruutel had a full-bodied sound as Emilia. Simon Shibambu and In Sung Sim rounded the out a solid cast.

The production

The new production by Keith Warner plays on the idea of shadows and traps. The production is made of black walls with squares and rectangles. The walls change forms to create different sets and correspondingly different effects. Warner keeps the action moving by connecting every act, with the sole exception of the final one, which is a bit of a letdown considering how well-paced the opera is.

Nevertheless, there are many striking moments. During the drinking song, Warner has the walls move in and out, creating a dizzying effect that emphasizes Cassio’s inebriated state.

The duet is given a dreamlike quality, the backdrop set to a sunset with beautiful blue clouds and the walls creating the image of a bedroom. As the act ends Otello and Desdemona enter this latter space and one sees the two about to go to sleep. The dream, however, is broken by Iago as he enters and pushes the bedroom out of the way, covering the stage in black.

In the second Act, “Dove Guardi” is performed with the chorus behind a wall. Upon Desdemona’s entrance, the walls are pushed out allowing the children and adult choruses more freedom.

The third Act sees Iago leave the stage in full silhouette, creating the sense of a man lurking about in the shadows, his presence haunting everything and everyone. Otello also becomes a shadow during the trio as he watches from a distance. One gets a sense of power, but the shadow quickly dissipates.

During the final scene of Act three, a huge white lion enters the stage but is quickly taken out, allowing the backdrop to turn red. The chorus enters in the back and is constrained to the lower part of the stage, almost as if they were lacking in power.

When the chorus disappears, the walls which moved in and out are put on a turntable to reveal a destroyed lion and graffiti, an evocative image that essentially comments on Otello’s emotional state.

It’s also important to talk about the costumes because they tell us everything about the character. When Desdemona first enters she is wearing a green cloak that she takes off to reveal a white dress. Only in the Act three duet does that cloak return but the rest of the time, the white is constant, expressing the purity of the character. Iago never takes off his black costume while Otello is given many shades of blue. It’s an interesting color but it also evokes the demise of the character.

Antonio Pappano

Music director Antonio Pappano couldn’t have been a better conductor for this impressive cast. He began with a booming sound, immersing us in. Contrast that with the cello ensemble in the duet as the cellos performed with schmaltzy slides very much like a singer would do. The tremulous uproar contrasted very well with the romantic sweep he gave the orchestra in that duet.

Other highlights included the Act two duet with Iago and Otello. There was great rhythmic precision to go along with brisk tempi. There was never a sign of losing control.

The orchestra’s highlight was, however, the concertato. Pappano starting with a tender piano, slowly moving the tempo and the violins, making a crescendo. Each time the orchestra grew until there was an explosion of sound and the winds and brass took on their full force without ever covering the strings or singers.

During the “Ave Maria,” Pappano imbued the music with delicacy, the shimmering strings dying down before making a switch to the ominous footsteps of Otello approaching. The basses slowly sped up until creating a full uproar that was immediately hushed by the “Bacio” motif, played with a cathartic crescendo.

The final moments of the opera were also stunning. It was as if Pappano didn’t want to let go, the strings holding onto the final chords until they simply withered into nothingness. It was sublime.

For those in London, it might be hard to get a ticket because all performances are sold out. But if you have a chance this an “Otello” for the history books. We will undoubtedly be naming Kaufmann with the great Otello’s in history for years to come. And he’s just getting started.


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