Most agree that opera experienced a golden age in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a time when one went to the opera to hear very difficult works performed at the highest quality: singers had no problems projecting over the largest orchestras in the world and reaching the very back of the house. Unfortunately for modern singers, this was also a golden age for the recording industry: the greats were forever captured singing their best roles in recordings that naturally have set the bar quite high.
Verdi’s Otello is an opera in which the tenor playing the eponymous character will (perhaps unfairly) be compared to his predecessors (and their recordings) because the sheer difficulty of the role demands it. Luckily, Aleksanders Antonenko certainly seems to have a better grasp of the role than other tenors to tackle it in the last decade (Ben Heppner and Johan Botha, both packaged by the Met as first-class, immediately come to mind). Perhaps it was his training with Riccardo Muti, but his sense of musicality and dramatic finesse are both great assets that place him in a class of tenors who sing and act the role quite well. His voice has a dark baritonal warmth and somewhat pingy top; at times his interpretation recalled del Monaco’s—arguably one of the best to ever sing the role.
Antonenko’s version of Otello’s “Esultate” (the most famous entrance in any opera) was thrilling: each time he opened his mouth I wasn’t entirely sure he was going to make it to the end of the phrase; the sense of danger was very real. Perhaps it’s England’s horrific summer weather, but it sounded as though he was battling a little bit of phlegm. He continued to warm-up throughout the love duet, which gave it a slightly brash gloss; nevertheless, his pianissimo high A that ends the duet (on the words “Venere splende”) was epic.
Undoubtedly though, one of Antonenko’s best moments was his “Si pel ciel,” the cabaletta that ends the second act: he was electric—there is simply no other way to describe it. Although his high B at the end was slightly pressed, the rest was sung incredibly well and was dramatically immediate (something that even Domingo had trouble with). His sense of lyricism and representation of temporary madness (one of the many things incorrectly translated in the surtitles, here as a “magic spell”) reached fantastic heights in Act III and culminated in the breathtakingly moving “Nuin mi tema” in Act IV.
Antonenko was certainly lucky to play opposite an Iago of high calibre: Lucio Gallo. Gallo has obviously done his homework, and approached the role (surprisingly) with an incredibly traditional perspective. Iago requires a sense of ease in both loud declamation and soft legato singing: in 1887, Verdi suggested to Victor Maurel (the first Iago) that almost all of his sung lines could be spoken at the level of an operatic whisper; Gallo certainly took this approach, sending ringing pianissimos into the house, but balanced it with fine singing, especially in the “Credo.” His chilling facial expressions, the joy he took in destroying Otello’s life, and his subtle representation of jealousy were very convincing. The brindisi in Act I recalled Gobbi’s interpretation: Gallo’s interpolated high Fs and his chromatic descending lines (which are often tossed off by Iagos of a lesser caliber) were sung with an admirable precision.
The only slight (and very relative) disappointment of the evening was Anja Harteros’s Desdemona. A famous critic once remarked that the role is unique for its delicacy: the soprano playing Desdemona must sing every individual phrase as though it is an aria. Harteros did justice to this perspective, but her voice intrinsically lacks the Italianate bite (but not volume) that makes the best Desdemonas. She did, however, sing some of Verdi’s best music exquisitely: in the concertato finale of Act III, her rendition of “Quel sol sereno e vivido” was very compelling. Of course, she sang the Willow Song and Ave Maria with a finesse that many sopranos would kill for, and she shaped each “Salice” differently, an accomplishment that is nothing to scoff at.
The supporting cast made fine impressions as well; Antonio Poli was an effective if ever so slightly underwhelming Cassio, while Jihoon Kim played a good Montano (with his smooth bass, the young artist is well on his way up). Hanna Hipp, as Emilia, also sounded as though she might have been affected by the weather, especially in her pivotal line announcing that Otello murdered Desdemona, which lacked the force necessary to be truly effective.
The evening was held together expertly by Antonio Pappano, who elicited a seemingly endless stream of passionate phrases from the orchestra. His tempos were well chosen and recalled Serafin’s throughout; he made one serious mistake, however, and that was to take the love duet too quickly. The orchestra was very well prepared; accolades go to the strings for staying in-tune despite some very robust phrases. The now classic and slightly dated production by Elijah Moshinsky is still effective, but one must question the logic behind the absurd hand gestures given to all the members of the chorus in the first act. Despite the ridiculous gestures, the chorus sang very well throughout.
On the whole, then, an excellent cast that could sing and act at the highest calibre made it the best night at the Royal Opera all season: a great night for Verdi and for opera.
Credits: Catherine Ashmore/ROH