Who is Othello? Is he a towering commander whose strength is suddenly taken from him by the machinations of a lesser man with a quicker mind? Or is he a poetic soul capable of performing great deeds yet too sensitive underneath to maintain his strength of character in the face of ‘motiveless malignity?’ Shakespeare leaves it up to us to decide, but it’s clear from almost everything Othello says that this is at heart an idealistic, unworldly dreamer with an unreal sense of the meaning of love. Keith Warner’s 2017 production of Verdi’s Otello leaves it open for the singer to opt for either concept, with the present incumbent Gregory Kunde a definite proponent of the former interpretation and the production’s ‘original’ Moor, Jonas Kaufmann, the incarnation of the latter.
Given Kunde’s experience in French operatic roles, it’s no surprise that his top notes are magical, although he lacks Kaufmann’s sweetly rounded tone. Dramatically he’s definitely the commander, although in appearance he’s more Cowardly Lion than Lion of Venice. It’s an uncomplicated, untroubling assumption, reliably well sung but without the sense of poetic introspection brought to the role by his predecessor.
It’s a different story with the Iago and Desdemona, with both Carlos Alvarez and Ermonela Jaho presenting far more striking characters than Marco Vratogna and Maria Agresta. Alvarez is a suave rather than snarling villain, singing with commanding emphasis, and Jaho is shimmeringly beautiful in both voice and person. She is at times a little strained on her highest notes, but this should be evened out as the run progresses. Her ‘Salce, salce’ was very touching.
The smaller parts are strongly cast, with Freddie de Tommaso particularly fine as Cassio; this twenty-six year old has a winning stage presence allied to a very Italianate sound. David Soar’s Lodovico and Dawid Kimberg’s Herald both provided striking singing, and Andrés Presno was a credibly despairing Roderigo. The role of Emilia still seemed under-directed, although Catherine Carby sang it sweetly. Michael Mofidian’s Montano made you wish that the role had more to do.
The Royal Opera Chorus was simply superb; William Spaulding had shaped the voices into a menacing or a triumphant band as required, and despite the production’s under-direction the chorus sound was overwhelming.
Antonio Pappano conducted the ROH Orchestra with genuine passion, sweeping through the tempestuous scenes as if possessed yet tenderly caressing the music in the quieter passages. The playing from the string section during the exquisite love duet was especially memorable.
There are good things about the production: Bruno Poet’s characteristically sombre, elegant lighting design allowed the imagination to supply more than the sets provided, and Kaspar Glarner’s costumes were beautiful. However, Boris Kudlička’s sets often resembled a Holiday Inn foyer during a power cut, and the overall direction only rarely felt truly involved in the drama. We still don’t know why the scene where the children present Desdemona with flowers looks like Liberty’s Christmas windows, nor why the couple’s White Company style bedroom has such handy Scimitar holders.
The audience was a very warm one, far more inclined to applause than that of at least two of the performances in the premiere run of the staging, and they clearly loved it. It’s one of those productions which won’t offend anyone too much, and which mostly depends upon three starry performances for its success.