This revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1987 production of Verdi’s penultimate opera proves one highly interesting point: that it is not necessary for the acting or singing styles of the main protagonists to blend in any obvious way in order for the result to be highly effective.
The Act II scene where Iago (Lucio Gallo) cleverly instils in Otello (Aleksandrs Antonenko) the suspicion of Desdemona’s infidelity is a good case in point. Gallo is every inch the cool, malevolent villain, who with his pleading arms and accusatory pointing hides his manipulative ways behind a smooth, caring persona. Antonenko’s acting style, on the other hand, feels more natural and emotional, and yet this contrast reflects the fact that Iago is engineering a situation, while Otello is merely responding viscerally and instinctively to, what is for him, reality.
A similar point can be made with regard to their voices. Although strictly the weakest of the three main principals, Gallo’s dark, yet expansive tone delivers a fairly direct sound, as befits the deliberate nature of his manufactured and false proclamations. Antonenko, in contrast, uses his rich, resonant instrument to capture pain and torment by either bursting forth with immense power, or trembling with utmost sensitivity. Similarly, Anja Harteros utilises her exquisitely pure, yet full-blooded, voice to make Desdemona stand as a lone point of innocence amidst the vortex of treachery, suspicion, disloyalty and deceit.
Although Brindley Sherratt also excels in the small role of Lodovico, it is Antonenko and Harteros who steal the night. As we watch Otello being ‘poisoned’ little by little, Antonenko helps us to place his feelings in a context far wider than that of the few days in which the drama unfolds. Harteros had to drop out from playing both Sister Angelica and Mimì at the Royal Opera House this season, but more than makes up for her previous absences with this captivating performance. Her renditions of ‘Piangea cantando nell’erma landa’ and ‘Ave maria’ are beautifully nuanced, bringing out every musical subtlety and effect in the score.
The twenty-five year old production itself does feel as if it is in its dying days. It seems to have tackled the opera simply by introducing grand sets of Classical columns, and a grand chorus whose sheer size often prohibits it from doing much once it has graced the stage. The set feels upright and unimaginative, and when Iago and Otello swear vengeance on Desdemona at the end of Act II, their own passion cannot overcome, let alone overwhelm, the emptiness of the vast space they inhabit. Still, the opera’s opening remains dramatic, and the tableau formed for ‘Quell’innocente un fremito d’odio non ha nè un gesto’, in which Desdemona occupies centre stage, proves highly effective.
Conductor Antonio Pappano, who only the day before opening night was working his way through five hours of Les Troyens, delivers with his usual style and attention to detail. Verdi does not waste a single note in this enigmatic score, and Pappano succeeds in bringing out every intended effect, especially as the drama reaches its tragic, and yet captivating, zenith in Act IV.
The Royal Opera House’s Otello will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in September 2012 (date unspecified at the time of writing).