Verdi’s Otello doesn’t have the big, underlined earworms of his earlier work. Both the music and plot move quickly and themes seem to vanish before you can grasp onto them. When a performance really works—and that isn’t very often—it all swirls into a kind of fateful vortex.
The Royal Opera House’s highly anticipated new Otello, featuring the internet’s favorite and also probably least favorite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut, isn’t quite that vortex. It’s a slightly disorganized storm, uneven and at times a little rote. But mixed in are some things that are really, really good.
Verdi, Otello. Royal Opera House, 6/24/17. Conducted by Antonio Pappano, new production directed by Keith Warner with sets by Boris Kudlicka, costumes by Kaspar Glarner, lighting by Bruno Poet. Cast included Jonas Kaufmann (Otello), Maria Agresta (Desdemona), Marco Vratogna (Iago), Frédéric Antoun (Cassio), Kai Rüütel (Emilia), In Sung Sim (Lodovico)
I was in London to talk about “Music and the Middlebrow.” As well as going to the Royal Opera House, I presented a paper at a conference on this topic.
I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Kaufmann is one of the good parts. It isn’t easy to be a Jonas Kaufmann fan these days, but the problem is that if you manage to track him down he still can be extremely good. Otello is often considered the summit of Italian tenordom* and it’s a role where I have the same problems as with Baron Ochs—I’ve heard it done so terribly that I am easily impressed. Just staying in tune puts you ahead of a lot of tenors. And most Otellos seem to be chosen on the basis of vocal heft alone (there are a bunch of Siegfrieds who dabble in Otello and the ones I’ve heard have been…. stylistically lacking, IMO).
Kaufmann is not this. He managed to make the big parts sound big, most obviously the two dramatic entrances in Act 1, but they weren’t his strongest point (and he sacrifices some nuance). He was more compelling in the love duet, the scenes with Jago, and above all the Act 3 monologue and final scene, where he created both a powerful, slow crescendo of intensity and an unusual sense of intimacy. He was also typically musical (and in tune). Vocally, it’s really impressive, rewarding, and even thrilling.
That being said, this is still a first effort. I think Kaufmann is better at crazy roles than heroic or happy ones (his Don Carlo was great, his Faust was not, and if you want to argue with my classification of Faust come at me in the comments section but remember it’s the Gounod one). Theatrically he didn’t come alive until Otello started to come apart, and I don’t think he has any real idea of who the character is until that point (“Ora e per sempre addio” had an electricity that “Abbasso le spade” just didn’t). There’s also a production question here, which I’ll get to in a second.
The other terrific thing about this production was a better bet from the start: Antonio Pappano’s conducting. Here he was somewhat deliberate, less brilliant and high contrast than YNS was at the Met, but got a dark weight and concentration in the opening scene and a mournful quality in the opening of Act 4. The chorus sounded well-rehearsed and appropriately big, and the orchestra had real depth. This performance was also, and I think this is something that Pappano has unlocked in the ROH acoustic because I noticed it in Guillaume Tell as well, unusually loud at its big moments.
The rest of the cast, with the exception of Frédéric Antoun’s incisive Cassio and Kai Rüütel’s urgent Emilia, was less satisfying (OK, other small roles, notably In Sung Sim’s Lodovico, were also good). As Desdemona, Maria Agresta showed a big, bright voice that was there when she needs it. But she is an unrefined singer. Some moments were gorgeous, others came out unphrased and without direction (particularly problematic when she was singing with Kaufmann, who doesn’t always sound natural but never seems to lack a plan for the next eight bars). She often failed to end notes cleanly, rather stopping raggedly when she ran out of breath. The voice itself is attractive and she has a busy international schedule of huge, challenging roles (she’s already doing Norma), but I find her inconsistency frustrating. She is also not an interesting actress, and her Desdemona was not individualized.
As Jago, Marco Vratogna was a late replacement for Ludovic Tézier (who I think lacks the vocal weight for this role but I guess I may never know for sure). Vratogna has a dark, growly, cutting voice, which sometimes descended into a wobble and frequently into shouting. He obviously knows the role very well, but his take was, with his shouting, on the cartoonish and unsubtle side of things, with the usual evil cackling and not a lot of finesse. It’s hard to believe that an Otello as internalized and seemingly attentive as Kaufmann’s would buy his con, and the two didn’t have a good dynamic together (though I like how the staging has Jago looming over Otello at the end of Act 2).
Finally, the part I have the least to say about, I suppose. Keith Warner’s production is a modest throwback, notably lacking any projections or other modern whiz bangery. It’s like one of the better efforts of the early 2000s-era Wiener Staatsoper, or a less ambitious version of Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo. The color palette is mostly monochromatic, and, like a lot of Verdi including that Hytner, it combines period costumes (by Kaspar Glarner) with Boris Kudlicka’s minimal, abstract sets. The sets give us high walls literally breaking apart and closing in on Otello, creating dramatic shadows and mazes.
The blocking makes the big moments register clearly and sometimes compellingly: the chorus faces us downstage for the climax of the storm, Desdemona dies on a kind of sacrificial altar of a bed, Otello gets to leave the main stage area for the apron for the Act 3 monologue. There are only a few abstract gestures, most involving a series of masks. The only thing that had people shaking their heads was the appearance of some graffiti on the back of a wall of a few lines from the libretto, which I interpreted as a manifestation of Otello’s paranoia but whatever. I don’t think it’s an inspired production and I would prefer something with a more interesting look and/or more interesting ideas, but it’s effective and preferable to the superficial flashiness of Bartlett Sher at the Met.
One thing I thought about, and I don’t have an answer for this, is how this is a production that never engages in the political or, explicitly, the racial. We don’t know where we are, really, and Venice’s foreign and military policy is, er, not a factor. This contributes to its blandness–Otello’s public persona is never given any texture, see Kaufmann acts 1 and 2 problems, above–but it’s more than that. This is a central issue in Otello reception, though more frequently and more heatedly discussed in the US than in Europe (and I am writing this from an American perspective). Like the last Met production, the ROH cast a white tenor and makes this a drama about one man bringing down another for…. reasons. It’s internally consistent if you’re willing to believe that Jago is just pure evil, which, you know, he sort of tells us he is in the Credo. But I don’t think this production carried that off, and I don’t think the most recent Met one did either.
I wonder if this take is harder to make stageworthy than it seems, though I’m not exactly sure why. Deracializing Otello excises a huge source of tension. The formalist solution isn’t not an easy sell for people who live in the world and have maybe heard of the Shakespeare, and “well, the alternative is blackface” isn’t an acceptable answer either. This production might go even further in avoiding anything political (and, by the way, there are some translations in the surtitles about cursed Muslims that made me cringe and wonder if this was really the best idea). In no way am I saying that blackface is the answer. And I want to see an African or African-descent tenor sing this role but I also want to see Jonas Kaufmann sing it. Yet simply cutting out Otello’s blackness is easier said than done, and I don’t think I’ve seen a production deal with the resulting lacuna effectively. I’m beginning to doubt that denying the existence of a lacuna works.
That being said, see this production if you can. It’s pretty sold out, but I recommend it.
*It’s like the tenor version of Norma. I’m not 100% convinced that it, or Norma, is uniquely difficult, I think the opera world needs a role to perform this function, like the beer world needs Heady Topper because if there isn’t one thing that has been deemed maximally exclusive, how can you show your distinction? (That being said, I think there’s a better case for both Otello and Tristan actually offering a combination of uniquely challenging demands and centrality in the repertoire than there is for Norma.)
Previously in Otello:
Photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House
I can’t find a trailer but here is Pappano talking about Otello: