In his explanation about his new production of Verdi’s Otello for the Deutsche Oper, director Andreas Kriegenburg says that his concept lies on three axes: updating the story to the present day, bringing to the fore the reality of war that encloses the love story and to portray characters with a realistic psychology. Again I have the impression that directors who stage opera either have no friends or they do have friends, but they hate opera.
First, updating Otello for the days of Internet and Iphone is a seriously risky business. The whole scale of fidelities – between spouses, between friends, between comrades, between citizen and state – seem odd in our contemporary Western individual-oriented societies. Desdemona becomes simply impossible – do the words “radiant”, “innocent”, “chaste” and “patrician” make any sense for modern sensibilities? This aristocratic, pious and lovely lady becomes a piece of ridicule in the XXIst century. Iago’s profession of bad-guy-faith sounds almost coy in the the world post WWI. And Otello’s wildness… well, who really cares about that in a world where self-possession is considered dull? In their own context, these characters still work in a powerfully symbolic way, but out of it, they ultimately loose their power to communicate anything.
Second, the war context. I don’t know about you, but I had the impression William Shakespeare’s geniality involves the fact that his judgment is above the average artist’s when it comes to deciding how much attention war context should get in his play about love and jealousy. Arrigo Boito, for example, who was a rather talented person (for example, instead of messing with other people’s operas, he decided to compose his own) opted for respecting the proportion established by Shakespeare when he wrote this libretto for Verdi. Mr. Kriegenburg, on the other hand, begs to differ. The story is set in some sort of refugee shelter, where Otello has distinguished himself in bravery by… by supervising displaced persons. And Iago envies this job to the point of making compatriots die. Gosh, that’s being really mean. The sceneries are literally the poor man’s version of a Tokyo capsule hotel. So basically we have lots of displaced persons living in these wallless capsules (with their individual tv sets, of course) in the middle of which Otello has an old-style solid wood desk and a set of leather chairs. Plus, they have lots of scotch whisky, which they drink before the eyes of the displaced persons. And there is this Desdemona woman with her party-dress and high heels who basically fondles other people’s children. When Otello throws her to the ground, these people who have no food, no medicine, no housing, no privacy are collectively flabbergasted with her marital problems. Do I need to write more? Do I need to comment on the third axis?
Replacing an ailing Paolo Carignani, Patrick Summers did not do much for helping the credibility issue. Although the house orchestra proved to be in very good shape, producing some wild sounds in the opening scene and expressive solos (including from brass instruments) throughout, the overall impression was of heaviness and dullness. The lack of structural and polyphonic clarity made the score purposeless and built up for no atmosphere. The Otello/Desdemona duet was quite unaffecting, Sì, pel ciel really tame, the complex in the end of act III awkward and the closing scene rather matter-of-fact.
The singers are not entirely innocent of the lack of affection. Outstanding in this cast, Anja Harteros produced the most ethereal high mezza voce in the market and never showed herself less than musicianly, but she did not seem to believe herself in her Desdemona. She did not master this special blend of angelic and glamourous that singers like Renata Tebaldi, Katia Ricciarelli and Mirella Freni could produce in this role by sheer tonal poise, eloquent diction and knowledge of inflection. I might be pressing the same key, but I really do not understand why Harteros is so keen on Italian repertoire, when her strengths are all of them in German roles. Zeljko Lucic is far more idiomatic and his voice is extremely pleasant and secure, if not really incisive as the dictionary definition of Verdi baritone’s. He is also too soft in personality for such a bad-guy role. In any case, it is always good to have someone in the right stylistic context. As for José Cura, after all these years, one must admit that he does have the elements of a tenore di forza in him. If they do not make into a coherent whole, that has probably to do with his technical irregularity. It seems that he has a different placement for every note determined exclusively by necessity of survival. In the process, note values and occasionally pitch are the main victims. Sometimes I could barely understand what he was singing. If I have to say something positive about him, it would be that his macho approach works well in this role and that, in spite of the irregularity, when he has operational space for that, he tries to inject some life in his lines, to soften his tone etc. Dio! mi potevi scagliar, for example, was one moment when everything seemed to concur to an expressive performance.