Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

Otello. Metropolitan Opera, September 24, 2015. New production, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and directed by Bartlett Sher with sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Donald Holder, and video by Luke Halls. With Aleksandrs Antonenko (Otello), Sonya Yoncheva (Desdemona) Zeljko Lucic (Jago), Dimitri Pittas (Cassio), Günther Groissböck (Lodovico), Jennifer Johnson Cano (Emilia)

The blackface discussion began with a thoughtful article by Alison Kinney, but subsequent developments have been disappointing. The general public has been shocked that this is something that is still going on but uninterested in learning why there have to be white tenors singing Otello. Simultaneously, traditionalists turned defensive. (This article from the Guardian suggests how much explaining is necessary.) This moment offered an opportunity to talk about the lack of diversity in opera beyond this single role–onstage, in the audience, and in whose stories are told–and think about why something so offensive to many people has been routine for so long. But for the most part that didn’t really happen.

The Met might have thought that this would be a gratifying moment where they get a lot of positive attention for doing the right thing. And they are doing the right thing! Yet there’s something distasteful about–it’s hard to ignore–a group of white men proclaiming their radical sensitivity even as they haven’t mentioned the customary blackface in Aida and feature the Zeffirelli Turandot the very next night. But Otello is the opening night showcase.

Is there an iron in the house?

This tactic is the only thing that got this Otello in the news. Many of the stories ended with a general blurb about the season, something which otherwise might not have been so widely published. It gave the production a talking point. And I think that’s an important lesson here: when opera breaks through to the general public it’s usually over a hot button social issue like race, body image, or sexual violence. Most of these stories present opera as an out-of-touch curiosity, where people who don’t generally care yell “get it together, Opera!” (opera isn’t a monolith but that’s how it often appears in these things) and there’s some outrage for a week and then everyone goes on with their lives and back to ignoring opera. The carousel is depressing and the teachable moments seem to be largely lost in outrage.

Otello is a case in point. The production itself is not very interesting and I kind of wish the Met had just done the classy thing and dropped the blackface quietly without the self-congratulation. The Met does have a rather extraordinary and in my mind eminently newsworthy thing in this production and that is, as I already said because I can’t keep a secret, is YNS on the podium. He’s doing really sensational work! It’s somehow propulsive, monumental, and transparent all at once. His interpretation is, in the opening, big but not bombastic. It sounds big and finds amazing things in the pit even while supporting a slightly undercast Desdemona and a severely undercast Jago.

But how do you get in the news for “Conductor is Good”? Can you even sell tickets based on that?

Anyway. Usual suspect Bartlett Sher’s production starts poorly, improves somewhat after intermission, and doesn’t offer any particular perspective or interpretive angle. The style is the kind of minimalist projected sets and period costumes familiar from many a regional company effort. Also familiar are the voluminous dresses for the ladies and somewhat more modern uniforms for the men (Catherine Zuber did the costumes here). This tells us rather a lot about how we see conventional gender roles in opera–women are restricted and decorative, men are tyrannical. Fascist chic and hoop skirts stay in style.

Es Devlin’s sets create a changing maze of translucent walls, a striking and symbolically suggestive image, combined with projected screensaver-like swooshes of storm and lights on a dark stage and backdrop. There’s a stylistic gap between the ornate costumes and these stark sets, but Bartlett Sher’s direction, alternately static and highly conventional, is too generic to make the connection. This isn’t the first non-blackface Otello I’ve seen and I don’t think it makes a major difference–I do agree with Sher that there are many ways to portray otherness. The problem is that as far as I could tell Sher doesn’t really do any of them. (The recent Martin Kusej Forza did a very good job of making its racial Other character an outsider without relying on blackface or caricature. It is possible.*)

Sher is particularly at sea (sorry) with the chorus, who stand still and occasionally look slightly perturbed. (Note: I was seeing all of this from the relatively distant balcony section.) Since this is a big choral opera–and the Met chorus sounded great–this is a problem. In the first half, the protagonists often remain still as well; after intermission the action becomes a little more vivid. But all of Otello should be vivid: it’s an extraordinarily compact, fast-moving, and precise opera. The small actions of the first half set up the bigger moments of the second half, but this wasn’t carried out effectively.

It doesn’t help that two thirds of Sher’s leading cast are weak links. The first time I heard Aleksandrs Antonenko was almost ten years ago, in Manon Lescaut in Vienna in 2006. I found what I wrote:

(My concern trolling was wrong about his age; he was 31 at the time.)  He is, by now, a very experienced Otello, and knows how to hit the essential dramatic points, but otherwise little has changed. His singing is still rough and blunt and lacks the flexibility this role requires. The loud stuff can be exciting but while he tries to be musical during the big moments (“Già nelle notte densa” and “Niun mi tema”), the voice doesn’t respond and tends to become husky and unsteady.

Most seriously, his tuning was all over the place, going flat in the lower reaches and sharp in the high sections. I heard him sing this role in Paris in 2012 and don’t remember these problems, and here he improved after intermission. It was, though, a significant issue. He still is no charismatic actor and lacks that touch of absorption or individuality that can elevate a portrayal above the routine. To some extent his native stage awkwardness becomes a part of his characterization, but that’s not quite the same as actual insight. I have no doubt that a strong director could get him there, but he does not seem to have benefited from this in this production.

Se la face ay pale, la cause est aimer

In contrast, Sonya Yoncheva was making her role debut as Desdemona. She’s a touch light for this role, not always quite filling out the biggest moments of the score, but that is a small price to pay for a voice which is truly interesting and distinctive. She’s a darkish lyric soprano, but the color seems to constantly shift. She is both musical and dramatic, with that unusual gift for making familiar music sound spontaneous and directional. She and Nézet-Séguin seemed to connect, and her Willow Song had genuine dramatic intimacy. (Then again, has the Willow Song ever not been effective?) Hers was the true breakthrough performance among the cast.

Lucic and Pittas

Zeljko Lucic is a very familiar presence for Met audiences, but seemingly poorly suited for Iago. His voice lacks the metallic edge for declamatory villainy, nor does he have a mite of mustache-twirling stage flair. I may be alone in this–he was seemingly very liked by the audience–but I found this Jago to be an undersung and underacted disappointment, a hole where something big was needed. In the smaller roles, Günther Groissböck was an unusually youthful, slightly grainy Lodovico, Dimitri Pittas sang Cassio with force but lacked the ping to make the drinking song fill the theater, and Jennifer Johnson Cano was a fine Emilia.

The star of the night, however, was YNS and the orchestra. The Met has been due for a new music director for a decade or more, and I’d put him as No. 1 on the list. That would be some news that could make the headlines. One hopes. Meanwhile, can we quietly work on that Aida next time it’s in rotation?

*On the other hand, I can’t remember anyone ever getting upset the last time an Alvaro looked very white—or the last time an Alvaro indulged in excessive bronzer—but people of every stripe generally get so distracted by the, er, highly involved plot that they fail to develop strong feelings about this issue and probably forget that Alvaro is a half-Indian Peruvian nobleman entirely. Is this concern in Otello partly because it’s Shakespeare and everyone in the English-speaking sphere knows the source?

Otello continues through the fall and will be back in April with Hibla Gerzmava replacing Yoncheva. The inevitable Live in HD is on October 17.

Photos copyright Ken Howard.


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  1. While generally really liking your blog (especially when it was still in Vienna, alas) I find this entry a touch arrogant. You WRITE and comment on stuff, while others do the singing. Surely there is quite a difference in between the two. While I do appreciate outspoken and critical reviews I think it is easy to sit behind a keyboard and be condescending. Antonenko is good in some roles, for example in Fanciulla. Should he really have quit singing because of your note ;)? Should you sing the roles instead? Should nobody?

  2. I agree with you at every aspect. Happily, I finally found someone with similar observations.
    Especially about cast and singing! For me, matters of style and genuineness are really important ones – and some singers dindn't respond my needs. I've spotted last years, it is very common trend now, to sing Verdi mixing many features and styles to make it more musical and progressive – easy to understand for nowadays. I understand idea, but I don't feel convinced after watching performances like this. But still, I think this production have potential.

    Hopefully nobody will take my words wrong! I admire great names singing in one of the biggest theatres in the world, but also I expect some connection with tradition and background of this genre. About Otello – and his white face visage- I feel pretty much the same like you: good idea, but far too much talking about it and making rumor loosing rest of the drama (almost) 😉

    Anyway thanks for very nice article, and I can't wait for next one :))

    Yours faithfully,

  3. Anon: your comment is absurd. No one suggested that he should quit singing and the review was actually pretty fair, pointing out his strengths as well. If you've read other reviews, other than those of the New York Times, you would see that there are far more critical reviews than this one.

  4. Thanks, Peter, I was about to say something similar. I wish Antonenko was a more complete artist and this wasn't his best outing, but he still has a lot going for him.

  5. I actually appreciated Lucic's performance in that he forswore any mustache-twirling "villany" and presented an Iago who is more calm, insinuation, outwardly cordial (but who takes it out brutally on Emilia when not "in public"). This is why everyone calls him "honest Iago" — he gives no outward show of what is seething inside him. Yes, the Credo was a bit underpowered but he played it as if talking to members of the audience, not like a power baritone (which he clearly isn't), going for the biggest applause. I think he was a rather Shakespearean Iago, the outwardly genial pal to all who hides his evil intents so that when he strikes it is deadly.

  6. PS — I've had a wonderful career designing for theater and opera — I have always thought it probable that Boito modeled the Credo on Richard III's opening monologue to the audience. Richard is another dissembler who can charm the birds off the trees one moment and change in the blink of an eye into a monster.