Otello – 30 years on

19 Jul

In some ways my early experiences of Otello spoiled me.  My first was in Vienna almost exactly 30 years ago – my first visit to the Staatsoper – with Domingo and Price. The production was pretty ordinary but it didn’t matter and I was blown away by the power of the opera. As soon as I got home I bought the Toscanini recording and went to virtually every production of it that I could.

What grabbed me particularly about the work was the astonishing skill that Verdi has in combining the epic and the intimate.  I was carried away by the power of the work.  As I got to know it more, it was the details that impressed me most – the way he manages the lead up to the fight in Act I and the whole of the finale to Act III, together with the sheer brilliance of the dialogues.

The 1980s was quite a good decade for Otellos. Jonathan Miller’s production at ENO was clear and caught the tragedy of the piece and had a really good cast and Elder conducting (I still listen to the CD now and again). Then there was Peter Stein’s version for WNO which had me on the edge of my seat with its sheer power and brilliance. And, of course, the first two runs off Elijah Moshinsky’s ROH production had Klieber conducting with Domingo and Ricciarelli. The first of those was one of those “tell the grandchildren” evenings where everything seemed to go right and Kleiber’s conducting made for a near-perfect evening (for the second run, I was unlucky because Domingo cancelled on the night I went).

I’ve been to fewer performances since then, partly because there’ve been fewer productions (there hasn’t been a London performance since 2005 – I had booked for that, but for the performance on 7th July which, understandably if irritatingly didn’t happen) but also because the casts haven’t been that inspiring.  And with a promising group of singers for the latest ROH revivial, I thought it was high time to see it again.

I saw the performance on 18th July.  Moshinsky’s production still looks handsome.  He was back to rehearse it and it worked intelligently and the singers’ motivations were clear.  It’s an object lesson in a really good, technical production, that is not going to age, that will survive any number of cast changes and, rather like John Copley’s Boheme, you can’t see why the ROH ever need to change it.  It’s a setting for the leading singers – neutral, sensible, but depending on those singers.

They were very good.  Aleksandrs Antonenko is one of the best Otellos I’ve seen since Domingo – a voice that doesn’t tire, that he uses subtly without bellowing all the time and he acts it decently enough. He hasn’t got Domingo’s sheer beauty of tone or, yet, the power and intensity that he brought.  Anja Harteros (good to see her at last) makes a strong, perhaps too feisty, Desdemona, but she doesn’t have Ricciarelli’s sweetness or ability to float a note.  I thought Lucio Gallo was an excellent, subtle Iago.  The support was fine and Pappano was excellent – nobody quite eclipses Kleiber, but this was a typically clear, powerful reading – my only doubt being over the Act III finale where I wondered if the tempi weren’t a bit slow and you were almost being shown how the music worked.  If I’d been seeing the opera for the first time, I think I’d have been bowled over.

But I wasn’t seeing it for the first time and it did all feel a bit remote.  I felt as though I was watching a performance, comparing, noting, admiring but not caught up in it.  Part of me wondered if I’d grown out of the opera – that it had lost its power to grip and inspire, that I know it too well.  Perhaps it just isn’t an opera like, say Figaro, where different interpretations and singers can give you a whole new insight into characters even in an old production.  Another part wondered if it’s just that I need to see a different production, one where a director simply started from scratch.  Or was it just that the cast didn’t quite gel?  Or maybe I was tired and irritable.

So I left at the end, feeling that I’d had a good evening but that it was a bit too ordinary and, almost, routine.  Perhaps 25 years is too long for a production.  Or perhaps I’ve just been spoiled.

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