Esultate! Jonas Kaufmann made his role debut as Otello, there was actually a bed for Desdemona to die on (or at least near) and the poor girl was suffocated using what seemed to be the White Company’s finest, with Otello himself resplendent in his best silky jammies. Not only Le tout Londres but ‘Tout le Monde’ seem to have turned out for this occasion, and were mostly well pleased with the man they had mostly come to see and hear.
Keith Warner’s production focuses strongly on Otello’s “…constant, loving, noble nature” rather than his prowess in battle, an approach naturally suited to Kaufmann’s sensitive, introspective style. This is not Domingo’s dominant warrior, nor is it Skelton’s not-quite-noble savage but a volatile, passionate, fatally trusting man. Thus, the opening cry of ‘Esultate!’ was not a showpiece but very much a part of the whole, and Otello’s shattered state was shown not by throwing the furniture about but by the gradual ruination of his composure. It was beautifully delineated, most obviously in Dio! mi potevi scagliar which found Kaufmann in fine voice after a slightly nervous start, and since no one does quiet anguish better than he, it was the final plea for one last kiss, with the ecstatic love music so heartbreakingly recalled, which showed him at his best.
The sublime duet in Act I lived up to expectations, with ‘Vien quest’immenso amor’ given the most poetic emphasis, and Maria Agresta’s beautiful Desdemona partnering Kaufmann with sweet tone and eloquent phrasing. At times she tended to approach the notes a little from below, but as the evening progressed she grew in confidence – the production makes no attempt to evoke the more feisty side of Shakespeare’s character, so we saw a very vulnerable Desdemona in keeping with the vision of her husband as an innocent betrayed.
Marco Vratogna’s Iago was not a mere villain of “motiveless malignity” but an injured, vengeful, dangerous soldier; his Credo in un dio crudel was powerfully characterized. His relationships with Frédéric Antoun’s elegantly sung Cassio and Thomas Atkins’ despairing Roderigo were well drawn. His wife was sung sweetly by Kai Rűűtel although she seemed a little under-directed at times.
The chorus, under William Spaulding, produced a tremendous wall of sound at the beginning and an ominous, brooding presence in Act III. Thomas Barnard made much of the small role of the Herald, In Sung Sim was a nobly dignified Lodovico and Simon Shibambu an impressive Montano. Antonio Pappano clearly loves this music with a passion, and he led the orchestra in a finely phrased, richly coloured account, supporting the singers with finesse.
The production is firmly in the ‘nothing to frighten the horses’ category. Boris Kudlička’s sombre, mostly dark-hued sets draw some of their inspiration from the interplay of light and shade found in such buildings as the Beshtak Palace in Cairo, and the murder scene is staged with classical restraint. Kaspar Glarner’s costumes must have been rather warm to wear on this 34C evening, but they are formally beautiful and very flattering. Bruno Poet’s lighting evokes both the brilliance of after-battle celebration and the cloistered atmosphere of castle interiors, and the movement and fight direction (Michael Barry and Ran Arthur Braun respectively) is well considered if at times needing a bit of tightening up.
Those seeking new insights or a ‘Regietheater’ style might feel disappointed, but the production’s relative simplicity is a strength since it does not merely showcase one outstanding individual’s performance but feels more like a company affair – quite an achievement given that the major attraction is the singer of the title role. If you haven’t booked a ticket, there’s no need to feel dismayed since the performance on June 28th will be relayed ‘live’ to cinemas around the world as part of the ROH Live Cinema Season – you can find details at roh.org.uk/cinemas.