Thursday, July 6, 2017

Verdi's "Otello" direct from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Jonas Kaufmann,Maria Agresta (photo:Alastair Muir)
On June 28th 2017, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” was shown in 1001 cinemas worldwide as the last  of the LIVE Cinema series of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London for the current season. This writer attended the screening at Cinema City, Jerusalem.

It was composer and librettist Arrigo Boito who approached the already-retired Verdi with an offer Verdi could not refuse - to compose an opera inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello”. 280 years after Shakespeare’s “Othello”, Verdi’s “Otello”, his penultimate opera and final tragedy, had its successful premiering at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in 1887. The masterpiece has since remained an opera house staple. The Royal Opera House’s first performance of it in 30 years, this performance was conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano (UK), who has served as the Royal Opera House’s music director since 2002; it was directed by Keith Warner. In the role of Otello was German spinto tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Italian soprano Maria Agresta played Desdemona, Iago was portrayed by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, with Emilia, Iago’s wife, by  Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel, Montano - Simon Shibambu, Cassio - Frédéric Antoun, Roderigo - Thomas Atkins, herald - Thomas  Barnard, Ludovico - In Sung Sim.

For opera aficionados, Jonas Kaufmann’s debut in the title role was a definite drawcard. Avoiding the traditional Otello black make-up, Kaufmann nevertheless comes across as an outsider, initially glamorous, handsome and shy, as he then descends into the troubled loneliness and obsessions of his fracturing soul.  An effective touch was his looking into a mirror, one of the few props on stage, where he sees his own inner devil. The 48-year-old Kaufmann’s voice, which has been described as “baritonal”, is even in all registers, natural, richly coloured and lustrous, with a ready and sensitive use of dynamic expressivity. An intensely human Otello, Kaufmann will surely probe- and amalgamate more deeply with the role of a man undergoing emotional decay with each performance, to take the role to a higher degree of emotional pain and fury.

Maria Agresta made for a reliable and poised Desdemona, her face and body language leaving the cherubic look of a young woman in love to become a portent of what was in store. Despite occasional moments of detachment, her distinct, creamy and uncluttered soprano voice, young and fresh, were appealing, giving credence to the Desdemona role.

Marco Vratogna (a late substitute for Ludovic Tézier) revels in the cynicism and ill-will of the Iago role, authoritative and malicious  as he sets things in motion from the storm that opens the opera, singing his Credo to the  underworld  spectres there somewhere beneath the stage and becoming increasingly more malevolent as the action progresses. The audience loves a devil and Vratogna pulled out all the plugs to satisfy its wishes. After all, Verdi, at the peak of his dramatic power,  had considered titling the opera “Iago”.

Incisive and vital, Antonio Pappano’s conducting swept players and listeners into the spirit of the opera. Keith Warner’s understated staging - basically a black box, but one that cracks asunder to reflect the progressive decadence of the main characters -  with its attractive, delicate latticed panels designed by Boris Kudlicka, minimal as it is, comes across, in my opinion, as most effective, never distracting the audience’s  focus on the characters. Shades of other dark colours, greys,  midnight blue etc., take the tragedy through the course of events, with pastel colours and well-lit scenes reserved for those involving Desdemona. In the second half, graffitied walls serve to emphasize the deteriorating state of Otello’s mind - an interesting touch. Especially commendable was the beautifully-crafted, subtle and precise singing of the chorus (86 professional singers) under the direction of William Spaulding.

LIVE Cinema productions of the Royal Opera House offer an extra bonus to cinema goers - the chance to meet directors and singers, to take a glimpse behind the scenes and down into the orchestra pit, to learn more about the opera and what goes into producing it. Viewers can also enjoy having the best seat in the house!


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