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Otello – Chilling and Convincing Production of Verdi’s penultimate opera.
Despite originally being set at the end of the fifteenth century, this production resonates with contemporary themes. Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello, is perhaps one of Verdi’s greatest interpretations of the Bard’s, plays. In Verdi’s own words “the great searcher of the human heart”, was the inspiration for three operas (Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor).
Otello, Verdi’s penultimate work, is a chilling and poignant tale of an outsider, the Moor Otello, a triumphant warrior who returns to Cyprus as the Venetian Governor having defeated a threatened invasion by the Turkish Muslims. The opening scene, a violent storm with the people of Cyprus lining the harbour awaiting the return of their hero, sets the pace for this production at the Royal Opera House, with the flawless and powerful orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano complemented by a vocally strong and unified chorus.
The protagonist, played by American tenor Gregory Kunde, is obsessed with his wife, Desdemona (Ermonela Jaho). While he’s confident as a General and Governor, despite a touching love duet at the end of Act One, he’s vulnerable and insecure in his personal life.
Iago, played admirably by Carlos Alvarez, is jealous of Otello and conspires to displace him. Plotting with Rodrigo (Jette Parker young artist Andres Presno), he’s supposedly trying to set up Cassio (Freddie de Tommaso) while helping Rodrigo to win the favour of Desdemona. His underlying aim though is self-aggrandisement, with a sinister and nihilistic conviction that God is cruel. His aria, ‘Credo in un Dio Crudel’, was a stand-out moment of the production for me. The programme notes tell us that Verdi originally wanted to call the work ‘Jago’ (the Italian version of Iago). While ostensibly because another opera ‘Otello’ by Rossini was still in repertory at the time, Iago’s role is central to this Otello, both dramatically and musically.
The plot thickens and Iago easily convinces Otello of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. By Act IV, Desdemona is convinced that Otello will murder her and sings the plaintive and moving ‘Willow Song’. Ermonela Jaho in the role, performed brilliantly, both vocally and in terms of characterisation, offering us a Desdemona that moved from the confident lover and partner to Otello to a pitiful, helpless and wronged victim in the final bedroom scene.
Despite the dramatic opening scene, the opera as a whole seemed to open up throughout the evening, with Kunde himself somewhat restrained until after the interval. The simple sets by Boris Kudlička with Moorish style latticework windows, black furnishings and a massive Lion of Venice which appears in Act three and then is shattered but remains on stage, were complemented by costumes by Kaspar Glarner picking out key design features. The set design lent itself to mesmerising lighting by Bruno Poet.
This was the first production of Otello for me, although it’s a revival of the 2017 production at the Royal Opera House. I wonder if the apparent vocal restraint of the first act by the soloists was a ‘first-night’ effect. Certainly, after the interval, the production opened up. I was left wondering why I hadn’t seen Otello before – and searching for online performances of the willow song.
After the opening night on 9th December, there are subsequent performances on 13, 16, 19 and 22 (matinee) December
Royal Opera House
Bow Street, London,
Sung in Italian with English surtitles
Also showing at the Royal Opera House is the ballet Coppelia. Check our review to find out more.
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