Moor or less

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.

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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.

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Are you not honest, Otello?

When the subject of opera and blackface comes up among non-opera fanatics, I end up mumbling something wishy-washy about people of color being woefully underrepresented among classical singers, about Otello being a major role that dramatic tenors want to sing, about Moors not being sub-Saharan Africans. Then I feel terrible, because that’s a superficial answer to a complex, important question.

But have no fear, this Met revival exists in that alternate operatic universe where these things don’t matter. (Not uncommon. Last season only the chance casting of an Asian Pinkerton and a white Cio-Cio-San let any reality into Butterfly.) It deploys the semiotics of operatic drama—the singers waving their arms and stepping downstage, or fainting; the chorus looking collectively shocked; the stage elevator doing its thing—while hardly ever creating the resonance that makes actual theater. It’s a simulacrum that’s less convincing than Iago’s case for Desdemona being the Sluttiest Slut of Cyprus.

Verdi, Otello. Met Opera, 10/13/2012. Production by Elijah Moshinsky (revival), conducted by Semyon Bychkov with Avgust Amonov (Otello), Renée Fleming (Desdemona), Falk Struckmann (Jago), Michael Fabiano (Cassio), Renée Tatum (Emilia)

To be fair, Otello is a difficult opera to pull off. Verdi’s late masterwork is a mighty but chilly affair, its slippery score containing few big tunes and rarely letting us inside the heads of its characters. The thing moves vertiginously fast, with little exposition or time for introductions, and we spend a disconcertingly large amount of time with the chorus. So a production has to establish some perspective on the characters very quickly, and find a dramatic function for that chorus.

Elijah Moshinsky’s cluttered Met production does just about the opposite. It stages the thing as a grand opera full of spectacle and effects, filling the stage with large sets and characters that lack any kind of dramatic focus. There’s a large amount of very lame and very purposeless dancing, seemingly just to take up space with the signifiers of spectacle. The principals parked and barked, and sometimes walked over somewhere else and barked some more. The block-like approach, heavy fabrics and relentless ornamentation proclaim the opera’s status as a luxury product, and are so unknowingly at odds with this lean, mean work that you wonder if the designers thought they were actually staging a Meyerbeer opera.

I don’t doubt that Semyon Bychkov has something to say about this score: there’s interest in the pulsing rhythms of the accompaniments, in the monumentality of some of the larger bits. But much of this was lost in a kind of scrupulous slow motion that sounded like a practice tempo, where you are trying hard to get everything just right. The orchestra was, for the most part, very good, and coordination was OK too, but it completely lacked the edge-of-your-seat quality that is absolutely essential in this opera.

Johan Botha was sick and our Alternotello was Russian Avgust Amonov. (These photos show Botha.) Einspringer in this role are usually bad news because most of the good singers in this sparsely populated fach are out singing, not understudying. Amonov began with a gargled “Esultate!” sounding like one of those Chinese houses that has a decorative third story. The program said tenor, but there aren’t any stairs going up to the top floor. Things improved gradually, and he found some of his upper register, if not all of it. He’s got a substantial voice but its thick, leathery quality is not attractive, and there was precious little music in this singing, nor was there any real character onstage. His intonation was often flat. I guess he’s more mobile than Botha, though maybe not that much more expressive. For a sub, could have been worse. I in fact have seen worse—imagine an Otello where both your Otello and Desdemona are sick, and not only are the replacements vocally dire but they also have no idea how to find their way around a very complex Regietheater production that involves inflatable beach toys and dozens of handkerchiefs falling from the flies—but this was not good, and was also less entertaining than that one.

I am on the record as a fan of Renée Fleming’s Desdemona, but I found this outing overall less successful than her Parisian effort. The kitsch quality of the production left her, often an emotionally unengaged performer, under glass until the Willow Song. That, and the Ave Maria that followed, were the highlight of the evening. Fleming’s voice still has a beautiful burnished quality and flexibility, and she sang this with a straightforward expressivity that made it some of the only real honest music of the whole thing. Elsewhere she tended to be drowned out. She again did the thing where her death throes included pulling her nightie over her knees so she would not be lying on the bed bare-legged for the rest of the opera. Modest, and relatively smoothly executed, yet still distracting.

The only performer who consistently made drama of the music was Falk Struckmann. This was more or less the Bayreuth Bark Jago, I don’t think legato is exactly an option for his tough, dark baritone. But he actually seemed to be consistently expressing something, even if that was fairly generic oily villainy, it made everyone else look a little lazy. I’m not sure what was up with his repeated fencing pose, but it gave him some visual profile.

The supporting cast was fine. Michael Fabiano’s bright tenor again showed promise as Cassio, though I similarly found him to have more personality in Paris. I wonder when we will be seeing him in bigger roles? To be honest, personality-wise he would have been a far better fit for the opening night’s Elisir production that Polenzani, though he is a less mature singer. On the other hand, it’s weird to see James Morris in such a small role as Lodovico, however considering his current vocal estate we may not want to wish for more. Renée Tatum was a finely sung, alert Emilia, and avoided doing that thing where the ladies-in-waiting always clasp their hands horizontally and for that we thank you, Renée Tatum.

But mostly this performance never met an operatic cliché it didn’t unthinkingly adopt, resulting something closer to mass ritualized enactment than living art. Three performances remain this fall; I wouldn’t call this a must-see, particularly with Amonov. Perhaps wait for the spring run, conducted by up-and-comer Alain Altinoglu (with whom I’ve had mixed experiences, but he seems to be going places) and the marvelous Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona.

P.S. Sorry about the sporadic blogging, I have been busy at work and have had the dismaying feeling that I have not actually missed very much!

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.

You can see a video of Renée Fleming singing the “Ave Maria” here.

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