Verdi's Otello is by common consent one of his very greatest scores, and there is no question that it's the work of a brilliant mind at the height of his powers. Everything is so skilfully wrought, in the excellent libretto every plot detail is essential and logical, the original Shakespeare stripped down to its barest essentials, everything driving forward and lean and dramatic. The music that Verdi provides too is always absolutely what is required and is immaculately composed - the thrilling storm scene, the lusty/comic drinking song, the syrupy love duet, the powerfully dark Credo and on and on throughout brilliant number after number, here seamlessly joined into half hour wholes, Verdi's inspiration virtually never lapsing in its entire 2.5 hour duration.
And yet. And yet. There is something slightly cold about the whole thing. It's so well put to together, so consummately made, so well thought out, that it's almost clinical, and one misses the open, honest humanity of Il Trovatore, Traviata and the other works of his middle period. Verdi's middle period succeeds because he leaves so much out - the spareness and simplicity of the writing, use of old fashioned bel canto conventions, coupled with his unerring belief in the drama, however ludicrous the situation, furnishes true artists with opportunities to provide the full gamut of emotion and meaning that singing and vocal line can offer to drama. It's where he is at his most successful and moving. Otello often feels like an attempt at something of the gravity and colossal mass of Wagnerian music drama, and brilliant though this opera is, it's just not where Verdi's genius lies. Everything is a little too closed, too rounded, with not enough ambiguity in plot, action, drama or characterisation to render the complex psychological states that Wagner provides us with. Though one cannot help but leave awed in a great performance such as this one, and whilst admitting that it contains some unquestionably truly great music, there's the creeping suspicion that something quite important is missing too. I'm sure that many will disagree.
I have to say that I also very much dislike the gross simplification of Iago's character compared to the Shakespeare, and think it's the job of the director to muddy the waters a bit again. I know this is opera, and things need to be clearer and simpler, but the Credo for instance, brilliant though it is in its way, traduces and makes blander this most conflicted, mysterious and interesting of all Shakespeare's villains. But this is a topic for another time perhaps...
This production is very traditional indeed. Elijah Moshinsky also directed the Met's now ancient production, and blocking wise it's very similar. Set designs by Timothy O'Brein are also similar to the Met version, though darker and more interesting.
What's particularly notable is that there's a reason for every action, Moshinsky having clearly thought a lot about the piece over many years, and amazingly he hasn't let it get tired or lose its impact. He doesn't try to change the story or add anything to Verdi's drama, a decision which I'm sure will make many people very happy. For those dissenters who prefer their villains murkier and less clear cut, their heroines less sugar and spice, and their Otellos more complex they'll have to focus on the superb vocalising on offer. I really don't have any real complaints, I'm just being difficult. I guess one could say however on the other hand that none of my notions of the work were challenged.
Aleksandrs Antonenko is quite astonishing vocally as Otello, with a shining, truly dramatic, brilliant italianate sound, never once sounding over taxed by the extraordinary demands of the part, whilst simultaneously remaining thrillingly heroic and manful. Very in tune too, and barely a scoop into top notes. It's absolutely huge as well, and actually gains colour and quality when louder. There are never that many great Otellos in the world at any one time; the last great one was Domingo, and Antonenko is surely destined to be the inheritor of that mantle. Vocally at least, he is even more accomplished, with a better top, bigger sound, and securer technique. Dramatically, he is not quite as compelling, not the natural instinctive actor that Domingo was in this role. Certainly not bad by operatic standards however. With singing like this, I'm willing to forgive just about anything. You owe it to yourself to see him. Do it. It doesn't look like he's done any Wagner yet... but surely Tristan, Siegmund and maybe even Siegfried await? The italian repertoire will no doubt remain central though.
Anja Harteros has been much talked about ahead of this appearence as she cancelled both of her previous appearances at the ROH this season (first Trittico, then Boheme) so people have been nervous that she might not show for this one either. I have to say, that after all this expectation I was slightly disappointed with her Desdemona. Dramatically she just never seems frail or vulnerable enough, nor does she have the big open hearted trust and warmth that Desdemona needs in very a traditional production like this to make her believable and sympathetic. The problem is also in the voice, which while often very beautiful, is not fragile sounding enough for this role. As a result of these things, she rarely tugs at the heart strings. The voice itself is very dark and full sounding, with a superb technique, and is particularly wonderful in quiet, floated high singing where the timbre is quite special; the last half of her Act 4 scena was a case in point, the tone finally lightened too to become silvery, shimmery and entirely fitting for the role. She's also capable of very significant volume in the climaxes of Act 3 (does Puccini lie ahead?), though her middle register can get quite harsh and even ugly when pushed and is not her strength. In general I also miss the vocal particularities, moments of true individuality and personality that mark out a truly exceptional artist. I do think however that this is not a role that really does her justice dramatically, and possibly not fully vocally either. She remains a singer of a very high order indeed, but for my money, she's not quite on the level of say a Kiri, or a Renée or a Leontyne. Again, others may disagree.
Lucio Gallo is vocally and technically not quite a match for his rivals, but is very good as Iago. The loud singing is not beautiful, but is often quite stirring and his Credo was brilliant. He indulges in quite a lot of unsupported head voice/falsetto singing which is the normal way of approaching Iago's intimate, high lying phrases, and makes him quite slimy and disgusting. One day I'd love to hear it sung by someone like Hvorostovsky in a true supported mezza voce, suggesting the hidden power and strength that could be (will be) unleashed, but on the other hand it's hardly necessary, and probably not what Verdi intended. Gallo does a strange thing often when singing loud where he'll pull his jaw into his neck and tilt his whole head forward which gives him a rather awkward posture, but perhaps this was a piece of characterisation? Dramatically he gets the job done, though doesn't create the depth of characterisation that would make the piece as a whole more emotionally engaging. I have my own ideas about how I would stage it all!
Supporting roles are all well taken with many also singing on alternate night in Les Troyens! Brindley Sherratt as Lodovico and Hanna Hipp as Emilia made the most impact, but really this evening is all about the three leads. Pappano is in the pit and drives the performance along admirably - it's a score he knows very well and he makes it deliver its considerable goods. On this first night, some sections still seemed a little scrappy from the orchestra, and there were times when it was lacking a bit in atmosphere, but largely the orchestra and chorus were on good form.
It seems that, just like last season, the Royal Opera House saved their best cast until last - would be interesting to look back at past seasons and see if this is coincidence, or whether they have always attempted this...