Giuseppe Verdi - Otello
Royal Opera House, London - 2017
Antonio Pappano, Keith Warner, Jonas Kaufmann, Maria Agresta, Marco Vratogna, Frédéric Antoun, Thomas Atkins, Kai Rüütel, Simon Shibambu, In Sung Sim, Thomas Barnard
Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live - 28 June 2017
Keith Warner nails his colours firmly to the mast at the start of the Royal Opera House's new production of Otello when Iago steps to the front of the stage before the storm explodes, holding a black mask of evil and a white mask of goodness, contemptuously discarding the white mask with an evil laugh; it's clear that this is going to be a 'black' Otello. That's as broad as the characterisation gets in Warner's abstract, incoherent and somewhat brutish production which rather stifles but doesn't entirely submerge the potential that lies elsewhere in the casting and performances.
Dividing along the lines of black and white is also as close as the production gets to making any kind of comment on the question of the Moor's ethnicity which ought to play at least a small part in how the drama unfolds. Despite persistent complaints and controversy about blacking-up in relation to this opera, race is rarely highlighted in Othello or Otello as the primary motivation behind Iago's ambition to utterly break the Moor, so although Jonas Kaufmann plays Othello with nothing more than a good tan, his fitness for the role is best judged by his vocal ability, and there can be little dispute about the quality of that.
His ability to sing the role - an immensely challenging role that I've rarely heard sung entirely successfully - is demonstrated brilliantly here, Kaufmann launching himself at those hugely expressive declarations like his life depends on it, with extraordinary control, volume and a rich timbre that prevents it from sounding like unseemly bellowing (although how long he can keep it at that level must surely be a concern). Unfortunately, as far as this production is concerned, Keith Warner doesn't appear to have given Kaufmann any real nuance or motivation in his direction and the expressionistic set designs don't offer much in the way of context either other than reflecting Othello's madness, and after a while you just feel bombarded by the lack of colouration on every front.
The set is minimal-abstract, resembling the physical location of the castle in Cyprus as well as the tower of Othello's personality that fractures and comes crashing down at the end. As the assistant director revealed in a pre-screening interview, that's illustrated mainly by shifting the walls around, opening up and closing down, with some random colouration that bears little relation to any kind of conventional colour coding or appropriateness to the drama. Act I is mainly black and masculine, with the sailors and troops in period-like costumes of leather bodices. Act II uses a plain white background that might suffice for Othello and Desdemona's love duet, but the brush strokes are too broad and it scarcely offers any nuance of Iago's underlying plotting and manipulation elsewhere.
There is a noticeable shift away from the clash of harsh realism with clear black and white moral lines in the second half of the production, but it's not any more 'illuminating', only further adding confusion as to how we ought to feel about the characters. Desdemona and a Herald arise out of gaps in the stage like apparitions in Act III as Othello's mind struggles to retain a grasp on reality, and there's a red wash of rage when the Venice delegation arrives symbolically dragging a huge statue of 'The Lion of Venice' which is seen overturned and broken in two at the end of the Act. Act IV, by way of contrast, gives prominence to the purity of Desdemona's enclosed white bedroom, but even Othello's harsh, rugged edges have softened here in a way that scarcely matches the psychological implications of what is played out there.
You certainly can't accuse Antonio Pappano of hedging his bets or any lack of coherence in his approach to Verdi's score. It's a thunderous account that sides entirely with Jonas Kaufmann's unrestrained full-force expression. I think I would prefer a little more light and shade in Otello, but there's no question that the more muscular approach is merited by the main thrust of the intense drama. It's all blood and thunder on the surface, but beneath that lies the seething web of Iago's manipulations of Cassio and Roderigo and his dedication towards anarchy and nihilism. In the context of this rather more heavy-handed approach, Marco Vratogna has no option but to settle for evil villain characterisation, which to be fair he does reasonably well.
If there is one aspect of the production worthy of unqualified praise (apart from a degree of respect for the laundry-person who has to get the stage-blood that spurts effusively from Othello's chest out of the white bed linen here) it's how it renews admiration for Verdi's score and astonishment at how successfully the composer directs everything towards the extraordinary last act of Otello in such a way the one anticipates it almost with a sense of terror. Maria Agresta ensures however that Desdemona's humanity shines brightly in contrast to the blackness laid on thickly elsewhere, her singing of the Willow Song and Ave Maria exemplary where it most needs to be. If the production lacked coherence and direction elsewhere that would draw the audience into the tragedy of the drama, the breathtaking conclusion to Act IV redeems it, if not quite justifies everything that comes before it.
Links: Royal Opera House, ROH Cinema Season