Verdi’s lifelong project to reconcile the extremes of the national and the personal, the grand and the intimate, come to a head in his penultimate opera, Otello. His well-known passion for Shakespeare cannot have been the only motivation for his decision to return to composition with this piece: the internal tensions surrounding Otello’s sexual jealousy, Iago’s venom and Desdemona’s sacrifice are played within a tense political context, which is so much more than a mere spectacular backdrop. Everything is finely painted and psychologically vivid, yet also concise and direct; musically, the conventions of the genre are employed with strength, rather than constraining expression.
The flipside of the piece is that it’s undeniably difficult to mount, especially for a small opera company, and this, Opera North’s first-ever Otello, would not have been possible without the support of the Peter Moores Foundation. After fifty years of supporting the arts, the foundation is to close, but not before it has underwritten the costs of a major project by each of the UK’s major opera companies (the “Swansong Project”). One can see why Opera North would want to do this piece, especially considering the impressive track record of their Music Director, Richard Farnes, in Verdi productions including ON’s Don Carlos in 2008, which was recorded and released by Chandos, again thanks to the PMF. It’s also, of course, a bold tribute to the Verdi bicentenary.
Sadly, though, the results aren’t quite as riveting as they could have been, principally, in my opinion, because of the limitations imposed by Tim Albery’s rather generalised direction and Leslie Travers’s bleak set designs. Albery updates the piece to the 1940s and emphasises the military dimension of Boito’s libretto, moving the scenes to a naval base dominated by huge industrial walls. Though the chorus is well handled, the setting leaves little potential for getting to the heart of the psychological conflicts between Otello, Desdemona, Iago, Roderigo and Cassio, all of whom resort to stock operatic gestures and generate little dramatic chemistry between each other most of the time. Without enough contrast in the physical staging, it seemed difficult at this performance for the three main characters to find enough variety in the text either, particularly in their solo numbers (i.e. Iago’s credo, the Willow Song or Otello’s Act 3 monologue). I also failed to understand how the drama had been enhanced by the change of era and setting; nobody’s more of a fan of challenging, psychological productions than I am, but there was little indication of what new insights the updating had tried to reveal.
To be sure, there were some fine touches and various affecting moments: the third-act finale really took off in intensity, and having Desdemona cover herself with her wedding dress before she lies on her bed waiting to be murdered underlines the sense of ritual about her sacrifice (she knows she has come here to die and accepts her fate). Overall, though, there was something downbeat and nervous about the performance – understandably so, given the many challenges posed by Otello – but I suspect much of it will settle down over the course of the run.
Vocally, it seemed to my ears that all three principal singers were taxed to their limits and sometimes beyond. Ronald Samm has great stage presence but hasn’t yet developed his characterisation to depict Otello’s gradual unravelling. By making him nothing but a military brute from the start, it’s hard to see what Desdemona ever found attractive about his personality or why the Venetian powers hold him in such esteem or respect. On the other hand, Samm’s singing is mostly impressive in this Everest of roles; he lacks Italianate tone and style, which gets in the way of communicating the text, but he does not seem unduly overwhelmed by the difficult tessitura and has much of the required heft, an incredible achievement in itself. Elena Kelessidi is a strange choice for Desdemona, it seems to me: at this performance she made heavy weather of the love duet, doesn’t have the purity or ease for the final act and isn’t physically well matched to Samm (disturbed from her sleep in Act 1, she appears in high heels and still seems awkward). On the other hand, she stood up to the challenge of Act 3 very credibly, but for my taste she is too melodramatic for this role (interestingly, Verdi rejected the idea of casting the original Violetta – one of Kelessidi’s fine roles – as Desdemona at the opera’s premiere).
David Kempster makes a decent stab at Iago and acquits himself more than acceptably, but again the voice lacks the facility to really slice through the orchestra and communicate the character’s poison. The cast is stronger lower down the credits: Ann Taylor was impeccable as Emilia, truly impassioned and vocally intense, while Michael Wade Lee and Christopher Turner gave fine performances as Cassio and Roderigo, respectively.
Richard Farnes’s conducting is to be relied upon for well-chosen tempos and a feeling for Verdi’s style, but I found the core sound of the orchestra to be too muted for the grander moments; the woodwind colours were beautiful, especially in the introduction to the fourth act, yet the sense of ensemble and tone of the string section was a bit tentative and ragged at times. Orchestrally, this meant the evening favoured the principal singers rather than underpinning the committed performance of the chorus too.
On the highest level, then, it cannot be denied that this Otello requires refinement, but as the run continues and the production travels around the region I’m sure it will begin more successfully to represent Opera North at its best.
Photos: Clive Barda