Reliable Otello

28 Sep

There was one great scene in the ENO’s Otello, which I saw on 25th September which reminded me of all the advantages of singing opera in English. This was the opening scene of Act IV. In that scene, Leah Crocetto sang the words so clearly, with a level of innocence and intensity that made this audience really listen. It’s a scene that I often find a bit tedious. Here, it became the emotional heart of the opera. I’ve heard it better sung, technically, the top notes more beautifully floated, but never with someone who conveyed the sheer simplicity and emotion. The English came over clearly, intelligibly and meant something. You weren’t looking at the surtitles.

This was the high spot of what struck me as a good, reliable but ultimately rather remote, unexciting Otello. David Alden’s production is updated and set in a vaguely ruined palace – positively traditional. It had its share of perversities. In the opening storm, the chorus is divided into different parts – people shout to each other across the stage and from different angles – it’s a picture of a crowd that’s busy, panicking, looking out, getting weapons and ropes. Here they’re standing at the back of the stage, a huge mass and, while this is effective, the different groups singing to each other seem odd and, however fine Adam Silverman’s lighting, it can’t avoid feeling dull, dampening the excitement, limiting the effect of Otello’s arrival.

I could go on. I’ve never felt before that the ‘fuoca di gioia’ chorus and the childrens’ chorus round Desdemona were basically rather tedious interludes in between the action or so conscious of the sheer length or the Act III finale. This may not just be Alden’s fault but his response to these numbers seemed curiously traditional. Meanwhile, the absence of a bed for Desdemona just seemed perverse.

So it was down to the performers, helped, no doubt, by Alden’s skill there. I’m a huge fan of Stuart Skelton and I thought he sang Otello magnificently. There wasn’t a hint of strain and he managed the tender passages and the love duet with real beauty.  It was among the most confident performances musically that I’ve heard. And yet he lacked that power that, say, Domingo and Charles Craig have had to move me, to make my heart stop and tears come to my eyes in, say, Ora e per sempre addio or  Dio mi potevi scagliar or at the end. And I think part of this was that I did not get the sense of the huge military giant – an aspect of the opera mostly ignored by Alden – or of the outsider. In the programme we were told that he was a very lightly tanned assimilated North African moor with virtually no blacking up. That’s fine but without the sense of the outsider of someone different, of the great hero who is brought down, you miss the grandeur and epic part of Verdi’s tragedy.

This must also have slightly blunted the effect of Jonathan Summers’s outstanding Iago. Vocally, he’s not a s free as he once was, but his abiltity to conbvey lowering jealousy and villainy is second to none. He got a level of hatred and anger into his credo that was terrifying because of its very stillness and his stillness and uncompromising certainty This was among the finest Iagos that I’ve seen.

Before the final act, I’d been less than certain about Ms Crocetto – dressed in shades of grey, she seemed a bit anonymous, her tone a bit pale.  As I’ve suggested, however, her performance in Act IV was outstanding.

Allan Clayton was a dissolute alcoholic of a Cassio – you really wondered about the wisdom of leaving him in charge in Cyprus.  And he sang very well.  Pamela Helen Stephens created a dour, uptight Emilia who came into her own in the last Act.

Edward Gardner conducted as well as you’d expect.  The orchestra sounded terrifying in the storm scene and accompanied the singers well.  As I’ve suggested you could hear a very high proportion of the words of Tom Phillips’s rather good translation.  The chorus were excellent and made just the huge sound you look for here.  The overall effect wasn’t as overwhelming as Kleiber’s but this made for a very convincing Otello.

So it was good piece of work and I strongly recommend a visit even if it didn’t strike me as the either the most radical or the most convincing take on the opera visually.


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