Otello, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, June 2017Posted on 22 June 2017
Putting Shakespeare on stage demands theatricality, which Keith Warner’s new production delivers right at the start with Iago spotlighted on a dark stage, an image repeated at the start of Act III with Otello himself.
The massive ship in Act I, and actors creating merry havoc in the fight that Iago provokes between Cassio and Roderigo provides excellent theatre, and in a mirror towards the end of Act II, Otello sees an armoured man in a mask. This is the mask of hell (larva infernal) that he refers to in the depths of despair after his Act III duet with Desdemona. When he later lies prone on stage after cursing her, Iago places it over his face.
In Boris Kudlička’s set designs the multiple small rectangular openings in hard façades illuminate the darkness of Otello’s jealousy, helped by Bruno Poet’s excellent lighting design. A dark production with the men’s costumes contrasted by the blazing white of the Venetian delegation and the colours of the choral scenes, where the Royal Opera Chorus came over with huge power.
As Otello, Jonas Kaufmann gave a wonderfully nuanced performance, beautifully expressing his agony and later descent into confused madness, though perhaps lacking power at the start. Maria Agresta’s Desdemona showed huge warmth and beauty of tone that allowed one to feel her pain, joy, and love of life, capturing the tragedy and central drama of their relationship. A stunning performance. Marco Vratogna’s strongly portrayed Iago occasionally lacked insidiousness, and his Act II credo could have exhibited more menace and less force. The force is clear from the orchestration at this point, particularly under the superb baton of Antonio Pappano. Excellent solo contributions too from Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun as an insouciant Cassio, Estonian mezzo Kai Rüütel as a self-effacing Emilia, and Korean bass In Sung Sim as a generously toned Venetian ambassador Ludovico.
Had three younger men in Milan not persuaded Verdi to return to opera composition we might never have had this extraordinary work. Two of them, librettist Arrigo Boito, and La Scala’s music director Franco Faccio, had earlier collaborated on Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Amleto) — broadcast recently on BBC Radio 3 — where Boito had shown himself a master at adapting Shakespeare, and in Otello he and Verdi produced a marvel, brought fully to life under the baton of Antonio Pappano, and stage direction of Keith Warner whose new production will surely be a keeper.
Performances continue with cast changes on various dates until July 15, with a live cinema relay on June 28 and a BBC Radio 3 broadcast in the autumn, probably Oct 21 — for details click here.