Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, 28 June, 1, 4, 7, 10, 16 July 2005
Renée Fleming (Photo: Clive Barda)
"On your knees, and weep!" barks Otello to Desdemona in the Act III finale to Verdi's penultimate opera.
At the third performance of the Royal Opera's latest revival of Otello, however, it came almost as a command to the audience (if they weren't already in tears, that is).
For this was by far one of the most musically accomplished and emotionally intense evenings the House has ever witnessed, absolutely devastating and involving from the word go.
And the cheer that greeted the American soprano Renée Fleming at the curtain ought to encourage anyone without tickets for the remaining performances to start queuing for day seats and returns now. Fleming cancelled her first two performances for family reasons, to be replaced by the reportedly excellent Amanda Roocroft, but has returned for the remainder of the run. It's an important engagement for her, being the first time she has sung Desdemona outside of America, and as if to make up for her indisposition last week she gave what will surely be a legendary interpretation of the role. Beauty, poise, pathos, soaring high pianissimi, and a breathtaking rendition of the Willow Song and Ave Maria were just some of the winning aspects of her performance. Too often Desdemona seems a weak and bland character, but Fleming made us understand why Otello, this great warrior and authoritative leader, would want to marry her. Her portrayal goes down with Bryn Terfel's Wotan as one of the two stand-out performances of the season.
Not far behind it was Ben Heppner's assumption of the title role. True, the music lies a little high for him, so that the voice cracked on the high notes of Cielo! Oh gioia! at the end of the Act III monologue, for instance. However, the rest of that section was so movingly sung, with a Lied-like intensity, and the death scene so poignant, that one left convinced.
Iago was sung by Lucio Gallo, another extremely satisfying portrayal. His was the most genuinely Italianate performance, brilliantly suave in the Act I Brindisi and evil in the Credo. Though a relatively slight figure on the stage, Gallo was nevertheless an unusually intelligent Iago, multifaceted instead of the usual pantomimic opera villain.
What was also striking about this revival was the quality of the casting in the smaller roles. Matthew Rose, Jette Parker (or is it Vilar?) Young Artist, gave a fully-fledged professional performance as Montano, likewise his colleague, the recent Cardiff Song Prize winner Andrew Kennedy's Roderigo. Paul Charles Clarke was a sympathetic Cassio, and Royal Opera veteran (now Senior Artist) Robert Lloyd's contribution to the Act III concertato as Lodovico cannot be overestimated.
A particular joy and surprise was Young Artist Liora Grodnikaite's Emilia, a last-minute replacement for Christine Rice. One would have forgiven a low-key performance, but in fact she commanded all her scenes both dramatically and especially musically, not least in the Act II quartet.
Ending his third year as Music Director, and crowning both a magnificent performance and wonderful summer season, was Antonio Pappano's near-ideal reading of the score. Orchestra and chorus were both splendid, and Elijah Moshinsky's production still looks fabulous in Timothy O'Brien's sets as restaged by Bill Bankes-Jones. An utterly breathtaking and unmissable treat.