Verdi visited England in 1847 when he first saw Shakespeare’s Othello. This moved him and the librettist Arrigo Boïto to complete their own opera of the play in 1887. It is claimed to be Verdi’s ‘most highly developed orchestral work’ and David Alden’s production doesn’t leave this fact out.
Currently showing at the ENO, Alden’s production encapsulates Verdi’s musical sophistication, courtesy of ENO musical director Edward Gardener and the ENO orchestra, and the dramatic mastery of Shakespeare’s tragic and deceitful tale. Yet despite the vocal strength of its cast members and empowering orchestral beauty, I found that, the production was difficult to follow as the stage was half-baked and filled with underdeveloped characters.
Set in a Cypriot 19th century church with unelaborate period costumes and minimalistic staging, lights, directed by Adam Silverman, play a huge part in demystifying the grit and greed of Iago, which is sung by Jonathan Summers. This is contrasted with the white dressed and pure Roderigo (Peter Van Hulle) and Desdemona sung by American Soprano Leah Crocetto.
Boïto originally insisted the opera be named Iago, not only because Rossini had already written his own opera but, due to its sole focus; it’s based on the hypocritical villain and not the moor. Boïto cut out the first act to get straight into the tumult of psychological manipulation and Otello’s downfall. This adds nicely to the production’s lack of controversy over a blackened-face Othello, which is, often, depicted in opera and theatre. Aleksandrs Antonenko had to endure the brute of a face painted Otello in the Royal Opera House in 2012.
Stuart Skelton, Male Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards and winner of Olivier Award as Peter Grimes, sung as a gutsy and glorified Otello. He ignites an Otello obsessed with the idea of being loved by Desdemona and easily swayed and sickened by his own deluded insecurity which is perpetuated by Iago.
Yet Summers, as Otello’s chief lieutenant, doesn’t show a shed of evil from the get-go; in fact he shows a deadened and emotionless Iago that, although, sings of his desire and plans to rid him of his ‘lackey’ status, illustrates an absence of passion. It is only when he sits at the edge of the stage and narrates to the audience in a sung soliloquy ‘there is nothing, heaven is a lie’ , just before the interval, that we sense his malevolent yearning. It is hard to pin down Summer’s Iago as he moves from one extreme to another; a nihilist one moment to subtle acts of homoeroticism, which cushion Otello’s paranoia and emasculating features.
The last few scenes are powerful. We watch Desdemona prepare for her death and this is where Crocetto is at her best. She envisages Verdi’s victimised Desdemona that we, opera-goers, want to see. Crocetto’s cor anglais solo and ‘willow song’ brought, some, tears to the audience’s eyes which is culminated with the silence of the orchestra as she wails loudly of her injustice to Emilia (Pamela Helen Stephen.)
Unfortunately, although both vocally tenacious, I felt that, Crocetto and Skelton were individually stronger when they sung their own arias than when they sung as a couple. For me, their grand duet was devoid of affection and passion (and I wasn’t entirely unconvinced of their acting together despite how much they embraced each other.) This is a significant part of the opera as it highlights the deeper tragedy that leads to Desdemona’s unfair death, which – sadly- the production failed to bring out.
The ending is dramatic and saddened by the looming Iago that stays alive and unpunished at the corner of the stage. In true operatic style, justice is not served and, in the same way, the production did not give Otello the full breathe and life it deserved.
Besides my dissatisfaction with characterisation there were some stage directions that I thought needed tweaking, as well. For example, in Act II when ENO chorus singers sung “wherever you look, brightness shines…” Desdemona watches the children dance, yet the chorus singers’ voices were far and hidden from the stage that the audience could hear the tapping of shoes when it should have been the other way round. Come on ENO, what’s going on?
I cannot question the orchestra, the voices (Crocetto, Summers, Skelton, Van Hulle and Helen Stephen), or the music behind it all; but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed of the production as a whole.