Last time I saw Renée Fleming, Johan Botha and Semyon Bychkov together was in 2005 and the opera was R. Strauss’s Daphne. Although the opera this evening was Verdi’s Otello, there was more than a splash of Strauss in the proceedings, which I found quite refreshing, to say the truth.
To start with, Bychkov offered an elegant account of the score, rounding many a sharp angle in Verdi’s writing and producing ripe, dense orchestral sonorities, sometimes at the expense of his singers.
You all know I am not an unconditional admirer of Renée Fleming, but I cannot deny it is a pleasure to hear her in a role entirely convenient to her voice and attitude. She eschewed the ingénue cliché and offered a quasi-Arabellian aristocratic, proud and feminine Desdemona. Not only was her acting finely shaded, but also she was in excellent voice. Except for some mishandling of passaggio in her act II duet with Otello, she sang effortlessly and expressively throughout. Her Willow Song/Ave Maria combo aria excelled in ethereal floating creamy mezza voce and spiritual concentration.
In the title role, Johan Botha does not boast neither a dark nor Italianate sound, but his unusually pleasant Heldentenor filled Verdian phrasing with purity of line and musicianship. At this stage of his career, the role is not a stretch for him and he dealt with difficult tricky passages such as his opening Esultate! quite commendably. Although he lacked the emotional depth and the weight of sound to do full justice to moments such as Sí, pel ciel, he compensated that with sensitive and tonally varied accounts of scenes such as Dio, mi potevi scagliar. A subtle and touching performance.
Carlo Guelfi was more conventionally cast as Iago. Moments such as Credo in un dio crudel showed him operating a bit close to his limits, grey and woolly top notes involved, but his is idiomatic quality is one of his strongest assets. Among the minor roles, Wendy White’s firm-toned vehement Emilia is worthy of mention.
I had not previously seen Elija Moshinsky’s rather generalized if inoffensive production, but the costume designer deserves praises for the costumes created for Johan Botha.