Otello – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Arrigo Boito after William Shakespeare’s Othello [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]
Otello – Russell Thomas
Desdemona – Hrachuhí Bassénz
Iago – Christopher Maltman
Cassio – Piotr Buszewski
Roderigo – Andrés Presno
Lodovico – Alexander Köpeczi
Emilia – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Montano – Blaise Malaba
Herald – Dawid Kimberg
Chorus & Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Keith Warner – Director
Isabelle Kettle – Revival Director
Boris Kudlička – Set Designer
Kaspar Glarner – Costume Designer
Bruno Poet – Lighting Designer
Michael Barry – Choreographer
Ran Arthur Braun – Fight Director
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: 12 July, 2022
Venue: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Those who reach the final curtain of Verdi’s late masterpiece and feel emotionally drained will have witnessed something remarkable. Those unmoved by their encounter may feel emotionally short-changed. Such was my experience after the opening night of Keith Warner’s Otello, now in its second revival.
Boris Kudlička’s minimalist sets mostly involve low-budget panels perforated by irregular slits providing periodic shafts of light into the overall gloom. If the set remains a largely abstract, unlovable structure (also vaguely Moorish), this reboot is not entirely without inspiration and Bruno Poet’s lighting is powerfully striking, more so than the loosely Renaissance-inspired costumes.
But this revival is mostly notable for the presence of Christopher Maltman whose Iago is a flawless portrayal of sustained malevolence. From the outset he brings disquiet in a solitary appearance at the front of the stage where he smashes a white Venetian mask before revealing its black equivalent. Vocally he’s the star of this show, gifted with a powerful, stage-filling baritone with just enough blade to make you shudder during his ‘Credo’, his nihilism truly unsettling. One can really believe he thinks “Heaven’s an old wives’ tale”. There’s no mistaking his sinister intentions as he plies his psychological poison manipulating first Piotr Buszewski’sardent Cassio, then Russell Thomas’s troubled Otello (the first black Otello at the Royal Opera) whose increasing jealousy gradually gains focus.
The opening night took a while to come to life, becoming steadily more involving from Act Three when the relationship between Thomas’s Otello and Hrachuhí Bassénz’s Desdemona found a more dramatic impetus. Act One’s love-duet was passable enough, wanting only in chemistry and believable passion, both singers seemingly keeping their powder dry. Yet from “Dio ti Gioconda” outrage and fear gripped Bassénz, as much as paranoia became a destructive force for Thomas – musical personalities no longer simmering but coming to the boil. The absence of fire power in Thomas’s opening “Esultate!” found compensation in his tormented “Dio! mi potevi”, his tight-sounding tenor now more at home with his roiling emotions, even if his acting doesn’t quite convey a great leader duped, humiliated and lost in a mire of suspicion. At a more lyrical remove, Bassénz (at her best when not swallowing her vowels) brought refinement to the ‘Willow Song’ and fervour to the ‘Ave Maria’, her vibrato all but disappearing to reveal a range of shadings and a growing sense of dread. Applause was throughly deserved even if it interrupted the harmonic dislocation that heralds Otello’s feared return to the bedroom.
There’s impressive support from Monika-Evelin Liiv’s emphatic Emilia, Andrés Presno’s ardent Roderigo and Alexander Köpeczi’sgruff Venetian ambassador. The Chorus was superbly impactful, especially vivid in the ‘Fire’ opening, and Daniele Rustioni steered the Orchestra with an acute ear for Verdi’s ever-changing palette. It may not always have provided subtle support (occasionally overwhelming the singers), but Rustioni engineered plenty of momentum and vitality.