Tag Archives: Otello

Kaufmann’s Otello

7 Jul

Possibly, after 30 years, it was time for a new Otello at Covent Garden.  It was an interesting feeling to realise that it was more than 30 years since I saw the old Moshinsky production during its first run (Kleiber, Domingo, Ricciarelli and one of my abiding “great evenings”).  Anyway, Jonas Kaufmann taking up the role was a good enough reason for a new production and I saw it on 6 July.

Usually with Otello, I find myself blown away by the first couple of acts and then find the last couple pall slightly.  Here, it was other way round and the whole performance built up to, I thought, a really shattering conclusion.

So during the first act, I found myself deeply unconvinced by Antonio Pappano’s conducting.  The storm felt slow, almost becalmed – though I noticed the point that, actually, the chorus here are watching, preparing and that I was concentrating on what they were saying.  It wasn’t particularly helped by Keith Warner’s very static direction of the chorus.  This is a scene which, it seems to me, cries out for the bustle and energy that it got from Moshinsky in the old production, not to mention Peter Stein’s unforgettable WNO production.  I sort-of got what they were getting at, but I missed the sheer energy that I think Verdi needs here and which it got from Kleiber, Elder, Armstrong…  Kaufmann delivered his Esultate very strongly and I got a bit excitement, only to have it dashed again by the lumpen direction of the following scene and the fight: clear, yes, exciting, no.  Marco Vratogna’s Iago struck me as intelligent and active but not in particularly strong voice.

Then came the love duet, tender, intelligently sung and conducted with Kaufmann tender and powerful and Maria Agresta very promising indeed as Desdemona.

In Act II, I thought that Pappano was at his best in the quiet passages, the dialogues though, again, not getting the nuances that Kleiber did – he made that whole act sound like a piece of chamber music. Kaufmann seemed well able to cope with the vocal challenges but I didn’t have a sense of who this man was.  I missed the elemental power that Domingo brought – just as an example, the cry “Desdemona rea” was not the angry cry of a wounded man that it often is, but much softer, almost unbelieving – except that you almost missed it.  And shouldn’t he and Vratogna have been looking at each other during their duet?  The set was busy, at times swaying to match the drunken dancing, at others just bringing on particular pictures that, I have to admit, were rather beautiful.

At the end of Act II, therefore, I thought this was turning into a very good, decent Otello but not really catching light.

In Act III, it started to get interesting.  The Otello/Desdemona scene was intensely painful even if you did feel that they wandered about a bit: the end with Desdemona silhouetted at the back and Otello at the front made a superb picture.  Kaufmann did a wonderfully intelligent Dio mi potevi – making you feel the thought processes, though I wasn’t as moved as I have been.  Then Pappano managed the best paced Act III finale I’ve heard since Kleiber – another technically very well directed scene where you were alive to what was going on and the music built up intelligently and very satisfyingly.

Then, in Act IV, Agresta came into her own with the most intensely beautiful and moving performances of that scene that I’ve ever heard.  I often find this something of a bore.  Here I followed the thoughts, loved the gorgeousness of her voice and, most of all, the sense of innocence and awareness of death that she brought to it.  Kaufmann took command in the final scene and I found myself deeply moved by his singing.  Pappano’s conducting became all of a piece and, at the end, there was a couple of seconds hush as we absorbed what had happened.

So, overall, this was very good indeed.  I’m not convinced on this showing that Kaufmann has all that it takes to be a great Otello.  Vocally, he’s as convincing as I’ve heard since Domingo and you can’t doubt the intelligence or the sheer heft of the voice.  He didn’t make an ugly noise all evening.  My problem was that dramatically he seemed at a loss.  There needs to be a fire and passion about Otello and I wasn’t convinced he got near it.

Vratogna makes a very decent, solid Iago without offering any particular insights.  Agresta is really special and I’d love to hear her again.  The lesser parts were perfectly adequate with no-one really standing out.

Warner’s production is perfectly fine and serviceable.  There are some superb stage pictures and he offers an almost expressionist take on the piece.  There’s a lot going on with the set when I felt that I’d prefer more to be going on with the characters.  I wasn’t convinced that he’d particularly helped Kaufmann with a view of how he could make Otello his own and a lot of the direction frankly didn’t improve on the old Moshinsky production.  However, it’s a serviceable enough piece of work and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t serve as a decent backdrop for future casts.

As for Pappano, superbly seconded by his orchestra and chorus, I admired the accompaniment of the singers and the pacing of many parts but there were others where it just felt too ponderous.  I compared his timings to those of the recording I have of Kleiber in Milan – Pappano added at least 15 minutes to those and it showed.  And, irritatingly, a performance that should ended by 10.20 at the latest was not out until 10.40.

So this was high quality evening which got better and better as it went on even if it didn’t sweep you away from the start, as I still feel Otello should.

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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.

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.