My three or four reader (I guess by now I can say five or six) may remember how much I disliked Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, but I guess they would understand why I saw it again when they learn that Soile Isokoski was taking the role of Desdemona. Other than that, I would say this evening’s rather Wagnerian cast (it features a Siegmund, a Mime and a Wotan), if not sensational, is an improvement on the original one. My previous experience with Clifton Forbis was limited to the roles of Siegmund and Tristan, where a stentorian and very powerful high register finally compensated a rather curdled middle-register and the absence of seamless legato. Although Otello is a role for a dramatic tenor, it is one that occasionally requires sustained ascents to notes as a high b natural. In that sense, Forbis was no disappointment, he generally dispatched big high a’s and b flat’s with very little effort, but the the lack of flowing and tonal beauty is a problem difficult to overlook in this repertoire. He also has to work hard to scale down below mezzo forte and is not really specific about the Italian text. He seemed a bit at a loss in Kriegenburger’s staging in which the title role has less profile than some of the extras who have their own parallel plots.
I have often written that Mark Delavan’s strength in his Wagnerian roles lies in the noble quality of his bass-baritone. It is true that this is not necessarily advantage for Iago, but I have to confess that this was probably the best performance I have heard from him in a while. He was in very good voice and proved to be more comfortable with some awkwardly written high notes than some famous exponent of the roles, not to mention that he found no problem in the mezza voce and the clear articulation without which the role is helplessly generic. His stage performance turned around playing the bad-guy-and-loving-it, but the contrast with his velvety, “honest sounding” singing gave some depth to his Iago.
Soile Isokoski’s light-toned, fast-vibrato-ish, almost Mozartian Desdemona had an endearing old-style appeal about it. She sang with great affection, rock-solid technique, immaculate musicianship and is capable to produce her own version of Italianate chest voice for the most outspoken scenes. Her soprano is a couple of sizes smaller than the role, but this valuable Finnish singer masters the almost forgotten art of projecting without forcing or weighing the tone. Curiously, she seemed rather economic with her pianissimi and saved it for a haunting conclusion of her Ave Maria. I owe Liane Keegan an apology: when I saw the première of this production, I could not help to notice that her Emilia was impressively sung and acted, but forgot to write about it. This time, I found her even more eloquent and expressive.
Donald Runnicles’s conducting is the opposite of Patrick Summers last year – the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered an almost Straussian performance, with clear, transparent textures and unfailing sense of establishing tempi that allowed perfect balance between forward-movement and polish, but all that did not prevent the performance from lacking punch: the result was often well-behaved and ultimately undramatic. In any case, the audience did not seem to be really into catharsis this evening – the symphony of coughs that presided over softer dynamics must have been testing for the poor musicians trying to produce lustrous pianissimo effects, not to mention that Desdemona’s “post-mortem” lines provoked a collective episode of hilarity. Since 1604, poor Desdemona has been saying “O, falsely, falsely murder’d!” after having been smothered by her jealous husband, but it seems literature is not a subject in German schools anymore.