The Royal Opera House has heard some extraordinary and memorable orchestral interpretations of this opera over many years, including those of Georg Solti, Colin Davis, Edward Downes and the unforgettable Carlos Kleiber for five performances in February 1980. At this first revival of Keith Warner’s 2017 staging Antonio Pappano’s account of the score bristles and blisters excitingly and with greater dramatic and propulsive force than ever before – he conducted the initial performances of this production as well as revivals of the previous one. The orchestral sound was vibrant and sometimes overwhelming; those listening carefully will undoubtedly learn about and marvel at details of Verdi’s orchestration. Mention must be made of some superb woodwind playing – arrestingly ferocious trills during Iago’s ‘Credo’ and sombre foreboding tones for Desdemona’s ‘Willow song’. The heroic, martial and pageant episodes are certainly not lacking either, either in the present or in Otello’s reflection – perfect control of dynamic and clarity from the brass. That said, Pappano is, as ever, perfectly attuned to the needs of his singers. And this revival boasts as strong a cast as one could hope to hear today.
Gregory Kunde is a tireless Otello, the voice is notable for a pleasing trumpet-like quality when needed, but he easily scales down the metallic edge for the soft romantic music, and colours the tone to perfection to express despair, fury and a dangerous restraint. He charts Otello’s mental collapse with alarming directness – the initial snide trigger from Iago setting the tragedy visibly on its path. Impressive indeed. Carloz Álvarez is an assured and omnipresent Iago too, dominating the stage during his solo scenes, interacting superbly with Kunde and indeed with the performers of the smaller supporting roles. He sings with scrupulous musicality. The voice remains satisfyingly fulsome, though ideally enhancing the cut of the tone would aid the sense of the malevolent. Ermonela Jaho’s Desdemona is a strikingly original interpretation for she makes the character rather more nervous from the outset; the sense of her feeling astray in the military surroundings emerging strongly. Jaho’s technical mastery at the top of the voice is astounding – those ethereally floated soft high notes perfect every time. However, Desdemona is a role that requires a lot of power in the middle voice, and on this first night the sound did not project as strongly as it might have, and the tone was occasionally a little opaque. It will surely develop. As anticipated her final act contribution is absolutely riveting from both a vocal and theatrical perspective – you could have heard a pin drop.
All the various officer and courtier roles were admirably sung and acted too; notably Freddie De Tommaso’s likeable and sappy-voiced Cassio, and David Soar’s patrician Lodovico. Catherine Carby was a strongly sympathetic Emilia too, although Keith Warner’s placing Emilia and Iago to the rear of the stage partially obscured by screens during the Act Two quartet doesn’t aid either vocal balance or elaboration of the plot around the migratory handkerchief. The chaotic carnage of the final scene as Iago’s plot comes to light is perhaps the best moment of the staging. Elsewhere the, admittedly claustrophobic, encasing restricts fluidity of movement of the energetic and cohesive chorus, and the appearances of several characters through various floor trap-doors is irritating and caused one of several costume hiatuses. Verdi wins totally though; the evening gets better and better as the shattering conclusion approaches.
- Further performances on 13, 16, 19 and 22 (mat) December
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk