Otello (Metropolitan Opera)

The second offering in Verdi’s great trilogy of Shakespearean adaptations, following ‘Macbeth’ (1847) and just preceding his glorious, comic swansong, ‘Falstaff’ (1893), Verdi’s penultimate opera, and arguably one of his finest achievements, ‘Otello’, was first performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, on 5th February, 1887 (16 years after his previous opera, Aida – 1871) and is presented here in the second broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful 2012/13 ‘Live In HD’ cinema season.

Elijah Moshinsky’s traditional, compelling and psychological production, first unveiled at the Met back in 1994, with tonight’s Desdemona making her debut in the role, is once again revived for this run, and though there is no doubting it looks sublime and is beautifully staged, I can’t help but feel that the set is not utilised to its full potential, and there are times when the performers, and the vast Met chorus, look slightly cramped and restricted to certain parts of the stage. Now if this is an intentional device to emphasise the themes of surveillance and confinement, then it is very effectively achieved, but I somehow don’t think this is the case! That said, it is a truly great production of Verdi’s penultimate masterpiece and very effectively highlights  both the dark tones of Shakespeare’s creation and the conflicting themes introduced in the text, and stirringly denoted in Verdi’s towering score.

Completing the creative side of the production is the inventive and beautifully artistic lighting design from Duane Schuler, effectively depicting the opening storm and highlighting the dark, psychological atmosphere of the piece; the lavish and sumptuous costume design courtesy of Peter J. Hall; and Michael Yeargan’s stunning set design, claimed by the Met to be one of the largest that appears on their stage, a bold, memorable and imposing design, which cleverly never threatens to engulf the performers on stage.

After suffering from allergies on the opening night, the South African tenor, Johan Botha, in the title role, had subsequently missed the last three performances due to a cold, so returning for the ‘Live In HD’ broadcast (and the final performance of the run), in front of a worldwide audience of over 250,000, one can only admire his courage in tackling one of the most notoriously demanding of all tenor roles. Sadly, Botha appears almost too comical in the role and his slightly over the top characterisation does diminish the dark, brooding power that should ultimately be conveyed. That said, his striking, impressively large and beautifully controlled tenor resounds loud and clear, thankfully demonstrating no signs of any illness or vocal hampering, and wonderfully meeting the exceptional vocal challenges of the role to convey a highly impressive audible, if not aways visual, performance of the doomed, titular Moor.

Returning to the role she first sang with the Met back in 1994, and a role she has subsequently perfected in opera houses worldwide, star soprano Renée Fleming (undoubtedly the main draw here) once again delivers an emotional, endearing and utterly convincing interpretation of one of her tragic, signature roles, ‘Desdemona’. Her sublime, rich, lyric soprano demonstrates a tremendous level of quality and control, and though she may have lost some of the power and depth she previously possessed, she delivers a top quality display of smooth, fluent legato and ethereal pianissimo in inspired and glorious renditions of arias she has wonderfully developed over the course of almost two decades. Fleming is often sadly criticised on her acting and her unconvincing portrayals, however, I feel that is a very unfair comment to make as, though Fleming is now maybe slightly too old for the role, she brings an impressive level of youth and naivety to the role and we are witness to some genuine moments of clear anguish, tragedy and heartfelt emotion. This is rumoured to be Fleming’s final Met performance of the role, and if that proves true, then it is undoubtedly one of the most effectively realised and beautifully delivered interpretations of recent memory.

German bass-baritone, Falk Struckmann, proves the revelation in this production, and he delivers a forceful and utterly chilling performance as the peerless, devious villain, ‘Iago’. Though he is difficult to watch at times, due to his slightly unconventional technique and expressions, his brilliantly achieved characterisation perfectly captures the vicious malice subdued beneath an artificial and unassuming facade. Blessed with a vast, rich and commanding baritone, Struckmann is perfectly suited to the role and he proves vocally excellent throughout, delivering a towering and intense rendition of the compelling Act II, ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ (‘I believe in a cruel God’).

Winner of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, as featured in the 2007 documentary, ‘The Audition’, Michael Fabiano’s assured performance offers a wonderful glimpse of his highly impressive, lyric tenor vocals in the small, supporting role of Cassio, and proves he is a definite star in the making.

Maestro Semyon Bychkov conducts the stunning, Met orchestra with an extremely light and fluent grace, but though he presents a faithful delivery of Verdi’s sublime score, it is all very simplistic and does not quite draw out the full, inspiring and immersive power that could effectively be rendered.

The next Live In HD broadcast will be on November 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm ET/5:55pm GMT with the Metropolitan Opera premiere of  Thomas Adès’ ‘The Tempest’, in an inventive new staging from director, Robert Lepage, with baritone Simon Keenlyside as Prospero and conducted by the composer.

Running time: 3 hrs. 27 minutes (approx.)

Photography: Ken Howard

For more information on the Met’s 2012/13 ‘Live In HD’ cinema series, please Click Here