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Posts Tagged ‘Verdi’s Otello’

The first time I have ever heard Aleksandra Kurzak, it was a broadcast of Rossini’s Tancredi in which she dispatched fioriture very close to the speed of light. Then I saw her as Donna Anna and thought that the role was too heavy for her. The first time I have ever seen Roberto Alagna was in the video of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in which he wowed the world with the naturalness of his delivery and his round Italianate high notes. After that, I have always seen him in purely lyric tenor roles, in which – truth be said – his voice sounded increasingly too heavy. Finally, the Opéra de Paris announced that they would sing together the leading roles in Verdi’s Otello. Believe it or not, I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to hear this evening. I have seen people like Gregory Kunde and Soile Isokoski as Otello and Desdemona (not in the same evening) and both had their moments.

Before I say anything, I must admit that I have learned this opera in Herbert von Karajan’s recording with Mirella Freni, Jon Vickers and the Berlin Philharmonic, and although it is unreasonable to use it as reference, well, at least I am being honest about that. Kurzak is no Freni, but she holds her own as Desdemona quite commendably. Her voice has grown in size but still sounds clear and pure enough. When I last saw her as Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, her high notes often sounded breathy and glassy, but – in this lyric emploi – this never happened, what makes me believe that the change in repertoire makes sense. Here she phrased with great affection, showed almost idiomatic Italian and offered breathtaking floated pianissimi hard to rival these days. Her very sound is spontaneity itself and at times makes one think of Freni, but differently from the famous Italian diva, she cannot shift to the fifth gear when things get really high and loud. Then she sounds more reminiscent of another Polish Desdemona, Teresa Zylis-Gara, whose slightly veiled acuti would span and soar on stage rather than flash in the auditorium.

Roberto Alagna is no Vickers, but there are advantages here. First of all, Alagna’s voice is warmer, his Italian sounds like the Italian language and he is not afraid of high notes. In terms of volume, at this point in his career, he has no problem with being heard. As his Desdemona, the problem is shifting to fifth gear. Although Otello is an intense character, his intensity is not a line parallel to the x axis in the graph, but rather a peaky one with acute angles all over. He snaps and acquires an explosive ferocity in less than a second. And when he does that, the effect is scary. He drives away all soloists and chorus off stage with just one sentence – and he does not need to repeat it. In order to portray that danger, than almost uncontrolled menace, the tenor really needs an edge in his voice that Roberto Alagna does not really have. His Otello was surprisingly smoothly sung, but smoothness was the bottom line here. The fact that he was the shortest man on stage did not help him to compensate for that in terms of scenic presence either. But let’s not talk about the staging yet.

Giorgio Ganidze is hardly the world’s most exciting Verdian baritone. He has a voice big enough and can snarl all right when he needs, but his punch comes from the outside rather than from inside. I have to be fair: I had never seem him as dramatically engaged as this evening, but still this is comparing him to himself. In this context , this has not spoilt the fun in any way. On the contrary, he felt at home in a performance that belonged into the realm of the well-behaved and bureaucratic. Yes, the house orchestra is no Berliner Philharmoniker, and conductor Bertrand de Billy had to cope with lighter voices and he did balance well the almost opposite demands of clarity and violence in the opening scene, but strings simply lacked volume throughout. In ensembles, the brassy sound picture was rather band-like and, as much as his soloists, he has no edge. One could count to ten before he cued his musicians to strike the kind of orchestral chord Verdi would use to mark an abrupt shift in the dramatic action.

And then there is Andrei Serban’s lazy, lazy staging. We’re in Cyprus, so there is a palm tree. We’re in war, so we have barbed wire near the beach etc etc. The anachronistic sets are unimaginative and lack atmosphere, but that is not unforgivable. This is the 43rd performance since the première and I would like to believe that much of the original Personenregie has been lost since the director itself worked on it, for what I saw today was truly amateurish. Blocking was nonsensical and one often had the impression that singers were standing there just waiting to do the next thing they were told to do. I’ll give to examples:

a) Otello grabs Desdemona’s wrist, calls her a whore than leaves by the next door. The horrified lady is so scared that she rans away TO THE VERY PLACE WHERE HE IS. When he sees that she is coming his way, he goes back inside before they bump into each other.
b) Desdemona is depressed because she feels something horrible is going to happen. Emilia looks concerned and tries to be nice to her. She carefully folds her lady’s dress and leaves the room with this expensive piece of clothing that she just tosses away on the floor. OK, let’s pretend that the audience is supposed to believe that the floor is the “wardrobe”. Then Desdemona asks for her wedding gown. Emilia passes by the red dress, crosses an archway and comes back with the white dress. If the wardrobe is inside, why didn’t she just cross the same archway two minutes before that to throw away the red dress in the floor somewhere where the audience could not see it? Seriously…

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Unlike the Bavarian State Opera or the Vienna State opera or the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Met has no “state”  in its name. That does not necessarily mean that they don’t get any money from the government, but it means that someone still has to pay the bills if the budget is not enough. This is where the patrons (both in the sense of private sponsors and the regular opera-goer) make all the difference of the world.

As one can easily guess, the expression ” eurotrash”  was not invented in Europe. Many among these patrons understand that there is a dichotomy in what regards operatic stagings: the traditional ones with their crinolines and wigs in which the story is really being told and the degenerate ones where some crazy European director has everybody in the wrong costumes or with no costumes at all, his mental derangement standing for the plot. As everything else in this world, the situation is more complex than this.

Faithfully telling the story is not just a matter of sets and costumes. It involves the serious intent of telling the story, i.e., why Otello so readily believes Iago, why Desdemona refuses to see what is going on around her, why Iago is not happy just to have some influence over Otello (let’s remember, he insists that Desdemona should die a violent death). When the Met announced a new production by Bartlett Sher, I wondered why exactly one would like something new by a director who is happy to keep things as decorative and superficial as possible. Here the whole concept is – the staging is updated to reflect the time of the creation of the opera. Hmmm… Why exactly? The soprano could have big dresses and Otello does not need to be blackfaced. Even if the fact that racial prejudice basically is the Schwerpunkt of the story: if Othello were Italian, Desdemona’s father probably would not mind her marrying him, Iago would not feel so offended to be his subordinate in command etc etc. But there always remains the problem of avoiding the injurious practice of blackfacing (unfortunately, this is not as easy in opera as it is in movies: there are many actors who could portray Shakespeare’s Othello for the cameras, while only a few tenors can sing the role as written by Verdi ). Of course, there are other ways of showing that the Moor does not belong in Venetian society. For instance, many refugees in the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy are perfectly similar in appearance to the Mediterranean Europeans who insist that there is a big difference between them. But that does not happen in this production, I am afraid. These people just wander around plastic architectonic models and among fancy sea-image projections on screen.

As Sonya Yoncheva sang the role of Desdemona in the première, reviewers praised her acting abilities against a backdrop of theatrical void. This is unfortunately not the case with Hibla Gerzmava, who seems little concerned with drama. Although her soprano is on paper fit for the part, she sang it in too businesslike a manner: her diction is unclear, the low register is a bit guttural and her approach to mezza voce is hit or miss, not to mention that a great deal of her singing in most exposed passages is hooty and piercing. If one checks her old performances on Youtube (a Letter Scene from Evgeny Onegin, Mozart’s Laudate dominum (K. 339)), one will hear a lyric soprano of great potential,unfortunately not fulfilled. If there is a moment for serious rethinking, this is now. Aleksandrs Antonenko has important assets for the role of Otello: his tenor is big and forceful, the high notes flash all right in the auditorium and he is not insensitive to softer dynamics. It is not an Italianate voice, though. The whole method lacks the mastery of portamento and colouring a tenor truly acquainted with the style would have. One could always say that he also avoids the vulgar turns of phrase some Italian tenors would wrongly employ in Verdi, but after two acts of emotionally detached singing in this of all roles, the audience as ready for some feeling, even at the expense of elegance. It was a pity that, during act III, Mr. Antonenko started to fight with his high notes that – truth be said – showed some instability since the beginning. Most alarmingly, this difficulty developed into hoarseness. We have to thank Italian tenor Francesco Anile for voicing act IV from the wings to the Antonenko’s ” acting” on stage.

Although Zeliko Lucic’s baritone used to be more insolent in both ends of his range, it is still admirably rich and warm, not to mention that he phrases with musicianship and good taste. He is also hardly electrifying as a performer, but that can be an interesting dramatic point in the role of a schemer such as Iago in the context of an otherwise thrilling performance. Not this afternoon, I am afraid. In this sense, Lucic was very much in the same mindset of his conductor. Adam Fischer offered a Verdi of Mozartian grace and poise, transparent and forward-moving. At first, this seemed refreshingly valid, until a sensation of sameness and lack of building tension prevailed. In the end, nobody on stage and in the auditorium seemed to really care.

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The Teatro La Fenice has a history with Japan since 2001, when it first visited Tokyo with two productions (La Traviata, with Dimitra Theodossiou and Ambrogio Maestri, and Simon Boccanegra, with Lucia Mazzaria and Fabio Sartori), repeating the experience once more in 2005 (Attila, again with Dimitra Theodossiou, La Traviata, with Patrizia Ciofi and Roberto Saccà, and Les Pêcheurs de Perles, with Annick Massis) only to come back now for one opera and concerts with operatic excerpts.

This year, the main item in the program is the staged performance of Verdi’s Otello with an international cast and conductor Myung-Whun Chung, whose recording with Cheryl Studer and Plácido Domingo with the forces of the Opéra de Paris for Deutsche Grammophon is a recommended item in the discography. The Korean conductor proved again that he knows this score very well, focusing, as in his CDs, in orchestral coloring and forward movement. The orchestra from Venice is less impressive than the Opéra Bastille’s in studio, but woodwind and brass gave adept and expressive contributions to a perfectible string section that could nonetheless produce the varied sonorities requested by the maestro. It is hard to tell if the lighter textures are a side-effect to the conductor’s coloristic approach or a necessity due to a lightweight cast.

Gregory Kunde, for instance, is a name one would rather associate with Rossini’s Otello, but since his Enée in Gardiner’s Les Troyens in Paris, the American tenor has flirted with heavier repertoire. He is probably the lighter-toned Otello I have ever heard. Even Luciano Pavarotti in Georg Solti’s recording from Chicago sounds richer in comparison. That does not mean that he had any problem in being heard this evening – his finely focused, bright-toned tenor pierces through thicker orchestral textured without effort. The fact that he is used to high-lying roles made some very tricky passages – act II’s amore e gelosia vadan dispersi insieme!, for instance – unproblematic in comparison to almost every tenor in this role, but, for the same reasons, his low register sounded a couple of sizes too slim. He is a musicianly singer, attentive to dynamic shading, and has very clear diction. He does not really have any wildness in him and his Otello was often less than convincing when he had to sound fierce. When Desdemona said that she was hearing a fury speaking through his voice, she must have used her imagination. However, he could produce the necessary intensity and despair in quieter passages such as Dio! mi potevi scagliar or in a very expressive death scene.

His Desdemona, American soprano Leah Crocetto, has a very interesting, almost endearingly old-fashioned big lyric soprano voice. Although there are moments when the tonal quality is a bit saccharine and grainy, she is adept when things get more difficult – she can float beautiful mezza voce, has reserves of power in “lirico spinto” moments and has beautiful legato. At this point, she would rather be labelled a “promising name”, but, if she lives up to the promise, she could be an interesting name for roles who are usually cast with less generous vocal natures.

Lucio Gallo is hardly a force of nature as Iago, but he is a very presentable one nonetheless, provided you adjust to relatively reduced volume. His baritone is more pleasant on the ear than I remembered and he uses the text subtly and effectively.

To say the truth, if the performance actually was rather underwhelming, I would rather blame Francesco Micheli’s superficial and overbusy production that concentrates rather on kitsch effects (how about a bunch of guys in skeleton-bodysuits piercing Otello with swords during Dio! mi potevi scagliar?) than in actually directing singers who were rather “now-I-take-off-my-shoe-and-recline-on-that-pillow” than really acting. To make things worse, the sets required lots of operation and showed dubious taste (zodiac patterns, starlit-sky lamps, red-and-blue lighting, tons of golden foil…). Act IV alone was so schmaltzy (Desdemona’s ghost wondering around and leading Otello to their postmortem love idyll) that one had to close one’s eyes to actually feel moved by the music.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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