Friday, 7 December 2018

Verdi - Otello (Munich, 2018)

Giuseppe Verdi - Otello

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich - 2018

Kirill Petrenko, Amélie Niermeyer, Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Gerald Finley, Rachael Wilson, Evan Leroy Johnson, Galeano Salas, Bálint Szabó, Milan Siljanov, Markus Suihkonen

Staatsoper.TV - 2 December 2018

While the dramatic qualities of Shakespeare's original play undoubtedly have a lot to do with the development of the nature and the emotional dynamic of the interaction between its characters, Verdi's Otello is the closest the composer would come to dramatic and musical perfection, the opera bringing its own charge and emphasis. There's little that a director can add to this and perhaps the best they can do is try to harness its power or bring a different emphasis without upsetting the balance. Some might seek to justify Jago/Iago's actions - and indeed Verdi's librettist Arrigo Boito invents a whole 'Credo' for him - but Amélie Niermeyer feels that a little more consideration of Desdemona's perspective can bring other elements out of the work. It's a balance that she meets well in her 2018 Munich production, but the real success of the production rests more on the performance of the three exceptional leads.

The opening scene of Otello, for example, is one of Verdi's greatest achievements, the conjuring up of a storm that sets the tone for what follows. Niermeyer of course retains the imagery of the storm as it applies to the narrative, an important introduction to the arrival of the Moor back in Venice, but the director also appropriates the storm as an emotional one by having Desdemona already in place in the scene, indicating that it's her perspective that is going to be considered. There's also a kind of doubling up however, a mirroring in Christian Schmidt's set designs, Desdemona in a white room in her innocence while the dark reality of the world to come without her lies outside.

That's the theory anyway, the 'concept', with the stage also turning a quarter turn each act to gradually reveal the totality. In practice it's not a major imposition and scarcely discernible but Desdemonda's presence is certainly felt more, and the injustice of Jago's plotting and Otello's jealous suspicions consequently come across more effectively. The actual mechanics of the plotting are not neglected either, the presence of the handkerchief as a device, how it changes hands and how it is used against Desdemona, is also emphasised. It even takes on a metaphorical aspect when highlighted this way; as an object of desire, as a symbol of love, of how the purity of that love is mistreated and turned against her, and as such it also has that dual function of innocence and destructiveness.

In its division of darkness versus light, dreams versus reality (as it applies to Desdemona) and reality versus nightmare (as it applies to Otello), the concept is uncomplicated and on a fairly high-level. It is used just to provide a context for the drama to take place within, or rather it describes the emotional context - as it applies to Desdemona mainly - rather than illustrating the dramatic action. Rather more effort is given to directing the singers as actors and knowing how to use talent like Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Gerald Finley.

When you've got a singer and actress as skilled as Anja Harteros you want to make the most of it, particularly when she is paired with Jonas Kaufmann, as she has been successfully on a number of occasions. Bringing her Desdemona onto the stage earlier than usual, even just as a silent witness, Harteros is a phenomenal presence. She remains the centre around which the work revolves (and apparently the set too, although I didn't really notice it). She brings an intense emotional realism that is on a par with the dramatic and musical drive of the opera.

Otello also needs to be up to that level or perhaps even beyond it and Jonas Kaufmann is equally as strong a performer in terms of characterisation, interpretation and technique. Yes, he still tends to deliver everything at the top of his voice, but in this case with the nature of the ultra-sensitive Otello and with Verdi's writing of it, it's justified. One possible weakness of the opera version of the work is that we don't perhaps see enough of the tenderness of Otello's love for Desdemona that becomes so twisted, but it is there and Kaufmann also expressed the softer sentiments well, sentiments that are necessarily strong enough to be turned to such horrific ends.

So all you need then is a Jago convincing, capable and callous enough to really stir it up between Harteros's pure Desdemona and Kaufmann's conflicted Otello; do that and you're on fire. The Bayerische Staatsoper have Gerald Finley as Jago, another strong presence more than capable of holding his own against Harteros and Kaufmann. There's no histrionics here, his is not a malevolent force as much as a determined belief in his superiority, boosted by a measure of self-satisfaction and self-regard. It's this kind of detail that makes all the difference, that makes the characterisation convincing, that makes it capable of pushing it to those places that Verdi takes it in his score.

I love watching Kirill Petrenko conduct. Honestly, if this was just a concert performance without the staging and the camera was fixed on Petrenko directing the orchestra, it would be just as dramatically effective. Petrenko enthusiastically throws himself into the opera with complete belief in it, becomes the drama, lives the music, and when he does that inevitably the music lives too. And it's incredible music. You can certainly get jaded with Verdi, with La Traviata and even Rigoletto, but not when you hear Verdi in his mature late period played as well as this. Technically daring in its arrangements, arias, duets, ensembles and choruses all put to the service of the emotional drama and colour of every single scene, Verdi's Otello is every bit as powerful as Shakespeare's Othello can and should be.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV