Verdi - Otello (Orange 2014 - Webcast)
Giuseppe Verdi - Otello
Chorégies d'Orange, 2014
Myung Whun Chung, Nadine Duffaut, Roberto Alagna, Inva Mula, Sophie Pondjiclis, Seng-Hyoun Ko, Florian Laconi, Enrico Iori, Julien Dran, Jean-Marie Delpas, Yann Toussaint
France TV, Culturebox - August 2014
Otello wouldn't be the most obvious or the most popular choice for a performance at the open air Chorégies d'Orange amphitheatre. It's unquestionably one of Verdi's greatest works and it certainly has strong dramatic credentials, but it's still not something you would think of as a "stadium opera". Judging by its reception and the performance here - broadcast live on French television and streamed on the internet - it's obvious that this passionate and powerful work can strike a chord with a wider audience if it has the right team in place.
If the actual production here lacks imagination and is unambitiously directed, it nonetheless succeeds in how it identifies and puts across the real strengths of the work. That's evident right from the outset where Verdi's earth-shattering opening, lacking even an overture, launches right into the middle of a storm at sea and leaves no place for shelter. A massed chorus stirs up the tensions as to whether the ships at sea will survive the onslaught of Verdi's scoring. Along with the impressive setting of the ancient Roman open-air amphitheatre, it builds up to provide a suitably big entrance for Otello.
Ah, and there's the secret ingredient to the Orange production, or perhaps the key resource that they place all their faith in. Roberto Alagna is Otello. He may be short in stature, but Alagna is not short in personality and he certainly knows how to make an entrance when given a build-up like this. (I've seen him work a similar trick just as successfully and without having to sing a note in Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini). Here Otello's heroic entrance is emphasised by him bearing the decapitated head of the leader of the defeated Turkish fleet, striding forward onto the stage, showering gold crowns to the waiting masses. Talk about going down a storm...
Alagna proves to be a good choice for Otello, but it's by no means an obvious one. Verdi's Otello is a big role to fill, not just in terms of personality but the singing demands are considerable, requiring force as well as lyricism, and quite a bit of stamina. Alagna isn't perfect and the strain shows, but he hardly puts a foot wrong and gives a committed performance. It's also something of a star performance. Either he doesn't appear to be terribly well directed in this production or he is left to his own devices, striking heroic poses, and poses of heroic anguish, never missing an opportunity to (literally) bare his chest. It's not a subtle performance, but it's one with enough personality to fill the arena.
Inva Mula plays Desdemona with an equal amount of big-gesture emoting, but Otello is grand melodrama. Mula sings well and makes a suitably good impression alongside Alagna. You have to wait to Act III and IV to see if she has what it takes to deliver the heightened sentiments and challenges of characterisation, and she carries it off well. Sophie Pondjiclis' singing of Emilia was strong enough but a little bit wayward. Seng-Hyoun Ko sang Iago well, but there didn't appear to be a great deal of effort put into interpreting or directing his character.
As far as directing went though, Nadine Duffaut didn't seem to have a lot to offer. With Alagna capable of dominating, with Verdi's powerful score conducted well by Myung Whun Chung, and with an impressive arena setting that needed little dressing, there really wasn't any need to do a lot more with the production. There were a few enhancements here and there, a broken mirror of suitable scale and suggestion on which pre-filmed close-ups were projected, all of which gave the production some character, even if the costumes were rather generically traditional. It was just enough however to work well, and there would have been few disappointed with the outcome.