Giuseppe Verdi - Otello
Teatro Real, Madrid - 2016
David Alden, Renato Palumbo, Ermonela Jaho, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Gregory Kunde, Alexey Dolgov, Vicenç Esteve, George Petean, Fernando Radó, Isaac Galán
Opera Platform - 27 September 2016
It doesn't matter how good a composer is and how skilled the adaptation, any opera version of a Shakespeare is necessarily going to lack the finesse and poetry of the original. Among some notable attempts however Verdi's Otello is rightly acknowledged to be among the very best, but even Verdi's musical sophistication and Boito's poetic reworking of the plot and its themes can't translate the full measure of Shakespeare's language. Not that it should have to; Verdi's Otello is a masterpiece in its own right. Any performance however - whether this story is told as an opera or as a drama - will only as good as the creative artists and the performers involved.
David Alden's production of Otello in Madrid is one such account of the work that demonstrates the musical and dramatic qualities of Verdi's opera and the challenges that exist in delivering them. Alden even attempts to bring a little bit of poetic flair to the stage and there is enough poetry in Verdi's music for there to be room for expressive gestures. It can be quite difficult however to reconcile all the variations of character between Shakespeare and Verdi without a firm sense of purpose, and almost inevitably Alden's production is a little too uneven in its application and inconsistent in what it is trying to draw out of the characters and the situation.
In terms of paying attention to what Verdi is bringing out in the music however, Alden is almost faultless in setting the tone of each scene. It's all about choosing what to illustrate or emphasise. Act I of Otello is a masterful blend of mood, drama and emotion that very quickly - without even time for a traditional overture - establishes character and the range of human emotions and interests that are to come into violent conflict - love, jealousy, ambition and revenge. What is needed to set them into confrontation is an agent of havoc, willing to exploit the weak and the gullible.
The agent in question of course is Iago, and Alden no less than Verdi or Boito recognise that defining his particular mindset and motivations is vital. Boito of course famously goes further even than Shakespeare with the introduction of Iago's 'Credo' of philosophical nihilism. Whether this approach is valid or not, it does at least represent a setting out of a position and Verdi and Boito follow through on it. Alden is less successful, but then it's by no means easy to unpick or adjust emphasis away from this key tenet of the opera.
As far as Act I goes however, everything works wonderfully in the Madrid production. Renato Palumbo drives Verdi's score marvellously with attention to the emotional detail as well as the overall dramatic force of the work. Alden's introduction of a female dancer to stir up the excitable sailors and choreograph the fight scene with shadow boxing movement does seem a little overplayed, but in many ways it captures the sense of Iago's scheming, plotting and attempting to control violent and unpredictable forces. Or at least that's how I read it, but it's not something that is really followed through in the subsequent Acts and scenes.
The mood however is quite different in the subsequent Acts, and if Alden relies more on the conventional stage and lighting techniques, it at least matches the dramatic action well. Act II is dark and sombre, and Act III with the arrival of the Venetian delegation is unexpectedly funereal, picking up on the dark undertones of the underlying tensions that have been created. It looks fabulous, with the seemingly arbitrary early 20th century period of the costumes that appears to be a favourite of the director, at least looking stylish and elegant. Even though all this and the final Act take place within a single set that looks something like a troops barracks on Cyprus, Alden does enough with the opening and closing of the doors and using light and darkness (Desdemona always bathed in light) to ensure that it's versatile enough for every situation.
The second half of Otello perhaps needs a little more direction than this, certainly in terms of who the characters are and how they react to the escalating tensions. There's more reliance on the performers to get this across and, by and large, the cast give strong individual performances that also complement the musical accompaniment. Conducting the Madrid orchestra, Renato Palumbo directs a performance that is full of sound and fury (to mix Verdi-Shakespearean references), finding the subtle nuance within each character, but also allowing the dramatic force of those emotions to assert their dominance once they have been unleashed into conflict with one another.
Much like Don Carlo, Otello can be a tremendously challenging work for singers, but one which can be highly rewarding when it has capable singers who are able to engage with it. It can also be a work that interestingly demonstrates the respective strengths and weaknesses of a singer's voice, and that's the case with the cast assembled here in Madrid. Gregory Kunde is one of the great dramatic Rossinians, capable even in the more testing arena of grand opera. Verdi is another challenge altogether, but Kunde acquits himself well. His Otello is one who is a victim of his own tormented mind, a warrior at war with himself, and Kunde takes the role with his usual commitment and personality. If certainly tested, it's nonetheless a fine performance.
That is also the case with Ermonela Jaho's Desdemona. The Albanian soprano has shown herself capable of tackling challenging roles like Suor Angelica and even Violetta Valery, and even if this exposes a little weakness in the middle range, it's a fully committed performance that again captures the anguish of an unjustly mistreated woman. Whether there should be more to Desdemona than this however, it didn't entirely come across under Alden's direction. Much hinges on the part that the scheming Iago plays in the opera and George Petean's capable performance exuded more calculating confidence than mindless malice. Alden doesn't seem to permit any over-playing of the role, but if that means that the work loses some of its bite, the tragic outcome is no less effective for it.
Links: Opera Platform, Teatro Real