Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Otello: The devil has all the best tunes in The Royal Opera’s revival of Verdi’s masterpiece

12 July 2022

A reappearance of jealousy and lust delights in Covent Garden.

Hrachuhí Bassénz & Russell Thomas (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

When Verdi began work on Otello with his librettist Boito, he toyed with the idea of calling it Iago. He didn’t of course, but if he’d been present at The Royal Opera’s second revival of Keith Warner’s 2017 staging, he well may have changed his mind. British baritone Christopher Maltman has been exploring the heavier repertoire over the last few years – his Wozzeck in Amsterdam remains indelibly etched on my mind – and the results have been hugely promising, especially in Verdi. Having received critical acclaim for his performances as Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra, tackling Verdi’s anti-hero seemed like the next logical step. And he didn’t disappoint. Electrifying the Covent Garden stage at his every appearance, he infused the character of Iago with the right amount of venom and malignancy to make him a three-dimensional character, manipulating the action and driving it forward to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.

His voice has darkened over the years yet lost none of its vibrancy, while he brings a palette of glorious tonal colours to the role. Whether leading the ensembles or soliloquising in a powerfully delivered ‘Credo’, he was the lynchpin of the evening – and as a sign of his innate musicianship, relished the Italian text more than his colleagues. And to top it all, this was his staged role debut, which made his exemplary performance all the more remarkable. On the basis of this performance, his role debuts as Amfortas (Geneva) and Wotan (Naples) next season are eagerly anticipated.

Not surprisingly much has been made in the press about American tenor Russell Thomas’ assumption of the title role as he made history by being the first singer of colour to tackle the role at this address. A cause for celebration? In an interview in The Times, he expressed sadness that it’s taken so long for this to happen, and he’s right – the world of opera still has a long way to go. And if proof were needed, look no further than Verona, where a certain Russian soprano is currently singing Aida in blackface – a decision that’s both inexplicable and grotesque.

Thomas acquitted himself admirably, but on occasion I got the sense that the voice wasn’t quite managing to do everything he was asking of it. His opening ‘Esultate’ rang out thrillingly, but at times he had to strain in the higher-lying passages. He seemed vocally more at ease in Otello’s moments of quiet introspection – both “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” and his death scene were moving – than the role’s declamatory passages. Apart from a couple of minor reservations his Otello was impassioned and eloquent, and he met most of the role’s fearsome demands head on.

“…he infused the character of Iago with the right amount of venom and malignancy…”

Monika-Evelin Liiv & Hrachuhí Bassénz (Photo: Clive Barda)

At his side, Hrachuhí Bassénz was strangely anonymous as Desdemona – her voice has a ‘covered’ quality to it and lacked the requisite bloom the role demands. Having said that everything came into sharper focus in the last act, and she was touching in a heartfelt ‘Ave Maria’. All the supporting cast were excellent, with finely etched cameos from Piotr Buszewski (Cassio), Monika-Evelin Liiv (Emilia) and Alexander Köpeczi.

Keith Warner’s staging works perfectly well in the first three acts – characters are finely delineated while Boris Kudlička’s impressive sets are imaginatively lit by Bruno Poet. Things however go array in the last act, with Otello’s bedchamber looking more like a Trusthouse Forte double, complete with some chic, modern bedding on one side, while the other is filled with what look like the broken remains of the Lion of Venice statue that made a fleeting appearance in the previous act. The stage looks muddled and messy which is a shame given Warner tells the story clearly and effectively for the remainder of the opera.

Given music director Antonio Pappano is due to stand down at the end of next season, the opera rumour factory has been in overdrive trying to guess who his successor might be. One name that constantly comes up is Daniele Rustioni, whose Macbeth earlier in the season was nothing short of sensational. Likewise, his Otello was alive to every nuance of Verdi’s superlative score – overwhelming in the shattering storm that opens the opera, and spine-tingling in the insidious melodies that underpin Iago’s scheming. The orchestra played magnificently, the brass in particular covering themselves in glory. With plenty of thrilling choral singing to complement the playing, this was music-making at an exalted level. It was evident in every bar just how much these musicians relish working with Rustioni, so I can’t think of a better person to fill Pappano’s shoes. Let’s just hope this opinion chimes with the thinking in Bow Street.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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Otello: The devil has all the best tunes in The Royal Opera’s revival of Verdi’s masterpiece
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