Verdi's Otello opens the Met season

Verdi’s Otello opens the Met’s new season

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2015-2016 season with Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, arguably one of the greatest operas of all time. Certainly my favorite…Always has been.

This new production is by Bartlett Sher, who, at least at the Met, has delivered delightful comedies (L’Elisir d’AmoreLe Comte OryIl Barbiere di Siviglia, to name three) or small dramas (Two Boys) or works lurking somewhere in between (his dark Les Contes d’Hoffmann). But Otello is the real deal, a heavyweight champion by any comparison.

Sher and his collaborators Es Devlin (set designer), Catherine Zuber (costume designer), Donald Holder (lighting designer) and Luke Halls (projection designer) create an ambiguous performance space for the new Otello, an empty stage enclosed by two tall mirrored walls at more or less a right angle to one another, the apex pointing backstage. Victorious warships returning in a stormy sea to relieved onlookers on a quayside on the island of Cyprus it ain’t, in other words.

  Opening storm in the Met's new  Otello

Opening storm in the Met's new Otello

But the walled space serves to amplify both voices and the music such that the terrifying storm for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which is the opening of Act I, knocks you back into your seat. Luke Halls’ projections of waves undulate with the ripples of sound emanating from the pit and an amplified low frequency roar simulates the howling wind. It’s really big. The walls will serve the same amplifying function when the big chorus regroups for the end of Act III (as written).

Variations to the space, a few props here and there, some different projections all contrive to create the scene changes. For instance, the inn on the quayside specified in the original stage design is here suggested by long tables, which are rolled out through tall doors in the mirrored walls after the storm subsides. That’s where they all get the goblets of wine for the victory celebration. The projections on the walls and the colors of the celestial canopy change appropriately, blood red, for instance, when Otello cries Sangue! See-through white glass (probably plastic) mobile three dimensional facades of buildings with doorways through them and stairways inside emerge through the tall openings in the mirrored walls at various times and in various configurations as the drama progresses, sometimes two or more at once. These too will change color at times.

But when all is said and done, overall, scenically speaking, there is an air of aimlessness to it. Perhaps the production just hasn’t quite clicked yet as to what should be where under which projection and in what color. It needs tinkering.

And the strobe lightning effects in Act I should emanate from behind the walls, or at least from the wings, not be placed at the foot of the stage directly in the eyes of the audience. For now it’s just bright lights right in your eyes, not even remotely lightning. It too needs tinkering.

Dramatically Sher makes the motives of the characters mostly clear: during the opening storm, Cassio (sung by Dimitri Pittas) kindly comforts his dear friend Desdemona (sung by a beautiful Sonya Yoncheva) without any suggestion of anything inappropriate. He is quite crushed by her death at the end. Yes, Otello is an outsider, but an older man and a Moor only in the text. The time is probably mid nineteenth century, judging from the uniforms and gowns. Does it matter really?

   Ora e per sempre addio : Otello and Iago in Act II

Ora e per sempre addio: Otello and Iago in Act II

Iago (sung by Željko Lucic), like Boito’s other spoilers (Barnaba, Mefistofeles, Falstaff, and Nero), is more complex an individual than just a thug. He even nods and bows sometimes to the audience like a jester who has just finished his spiel, one time about a cruel god, whatever. But make no mistake: Sher gives Iago a quite nasty edge. Emilia (sung by Jennifer Johnson Cano) is strong and supportive; Lodovico (sung by Günther Groissböck) is strong and authoritative. Characters firmly etched.

Less well conceived (or maybe just less well executed) is the title character himself. Aleksandrs Antonenko has the requisite volume and heavy metal in the voice for the role of Otello (though at times even these lose their focus). But he doesn’t seem to have connected completely with the possibilities and nuances of the role, nor do his actions spring from within. Otello’s introspective rambling Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali in Act III is a case in point. On the whole the total package is variable, rather a bit of a letdown for a performance that should become increasingly wrenching emotionally as the evening wears on.

To be fair there are genuinely gripping moments when I wished I had tissues: it gets pretty raw with Otello’s harsh insults to Desdemona, along with his harping on and on about the handkerchief, while she fatally continues to plead Cassio’s suit. Talk about a ‘death wish.’ So too is his cruel behavior toward her in front of the aforementioned assembly of all the Cypriots for Lodovico’s greetings and communiques (both in Act III as written). All good, but these shouldn’t be isolated moments.

  Sonya Yoncheva is Desdemona in new  Otello

Sonya Yoncheva is Desdemona in new Otello

Yoncheva’s Desdemona is nicely sung with a clear, shining voice, particularly in the Willow Song and Ave Maria. There is not a lot of sadness in her intonation though. Lučić is in good shape vocally, revealing the darker sides of Iago rather than, say, that of a more suave, schemer, such as Thomas Hampson did for me and my family in a previous season. Dimitri Pittas as Cassio is young and bright in voice; Günther Groissböck matches the gravity of Lodovico with a gravity in voice; Chad Shelton’s Rodrigo and Jeff Mattsey’s Montano are younger, more vibrant than typically portrayed.

Okay, some aspects of the new Otello are a letdown. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séquin’s conception of Verdi’s mighty score, as realized by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, was unequivocally superb. It never lacked the forward propulsion toward the tragic conclusion, yet at the same time it allowed inner voices of the orchestra to emerge naturally, all without drawing undue attention to itself, as if to say “hey folks, listen to this!” A talented and remarkable young fellow, he! I look forward to hearing the HD performance.

It is fitting that the Met chose to dedicate the Opening Night performance of Otello to the memory of the great Jon Vickers. His was an Otello who suffered deeply the seeming loss of Desdemona’s love based on the word of someone he foolishly trusted. And then she was no more.

On the page In Memory Of OperaMetro celebrates Jon Vickers through the memory of fans who saw him on stage and who knew his recordings.

I have to say this though: my first two Otellos, Jon Vickers, and James McCracken, were magnificent artists. A performance with either of them was memorable (but for completely different reasons). Yet to stop the journey of discovery then and there would have blinded me (and the rest of us) to a young Placido Domingo, whose Otello (with Sherrill Milnes live at the Met in 1979 and also on recording) was epic, soon to be the stuff of legends as well. Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior were great too. My mother saw them in Tristan und Isolde in 1935, and on her word, I found their recordings. They were great. But then came Birgit Nilsson…

But it’s 2015. Revere the past, cherish the recorded documents we have. But seek and be open to the best in today. Don’t ignore greatness because it’s not your era.  

Photos: Ken Howard.

Review performance date: September 28, 2015.

Be advised: the performance’s running time is about 3 hours, including one long intermission between (as written) Acts I, II and III, IV.

Beginning of my reviews of the new HD season!! Warm evening sun streaming across the plaza. It’s always a special time of the year!

JRS