This post is divided into Part I and Part II.
Part I – My thoughts on Keith Warner’s production of Otello at the Covent Garden, 2017.
Part 2 – My thoughts on seeing the opera at the Covent Garden, then seeing it again for the cinema Encore.
Part I : Othello versus Otello.
Before I begin, I want to make something clear. Othello is the original theatrical marvel written by the Bard (Shakespeare) in 1601. Verdi’s own interpretation Otello came along after, which he composed with Arrigo Boito in 1887 after seeing a production of Shakespeare’s play in England, 1847. Despite the English playwright’s influence on Verdi’s masterwork sitting in the opera house being armed with information about Othello won’t heighten your opera experience much. For anyone who is a big Othello fan (me!), they will know that watching Otello should be treated as a different reading entirely. For example, compared to the original play, Desdemona and Emilia say a lot more and unfortunately their characters don’t get the chance to develop as much in the opera. For some reason, Verdi plays down Emilia’s realism. In act 3, scene 4 of the original text, Emilia says to Desdemona, ‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man: They are all stomachs, as we are all but food…’ Not a dime of this shiny humour or wittiness exists in Boito’s libretto. Secondly, the ending is very different. Justice is not served. Iago gets away with creating the chaotic bloodbath without getting his hands dirty. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why Verdi originally wanted to call the opera ‘Iago’.
For the first time, our ‘dreamy’ tenor Jonas Kaufmann performs the lead role of Otello. This was, and still is, ‘the highly anticipated event’ of the year in the opera world. Known as Verdi’s most mature and highly orchestrated piece of work, composed during the final chapters of the composer’s life, the Royal Opera House has returned to the opera after 30 years’ absence with a superb cast sheet of performers including In Sung Sim (Lodovico), Marco Vratogna (Iago) Maria Agresta (Desdemona), Frederic Antoun (Cassio) and Kai Rüütel (Emilia).
For director Keith Warner the set depicts a dark space, but nothing that represents Shakespeare’s Cyprus. In 2015 the Met denounced the use of the ‘blackface’, the ENO followed suit with their own production of Otello, performed by Stuart Skelton. (Review here.) Here again, not a blotch of black makeup is used on Kaufmann’s face (just a slight tan he might have got from relaxing at Hyde Park on a sunny day). The prominent theme of ‘the other’ looms nevertheless in Warner’s staging, but in more abstract forms.
In the opening scene, before the music starts, Vratogna, as Iago, holds a black and white mask in each hand. Here, I believe this is where Warner implements any mention of colour without it directly relating to racism. The purity of a moral being is conveyed through a white mask, while the black mask instils notions associated with the tarnishing and ‘blackening’ of the soul. In the penultimate act, when Vratogna’s Iago has triumphantly won over Otello, encouraging him to embarrass himself and his wife in front of the Ambassador of Venice and the public, Kaufmann lies immobile and frazzled. It is at this point Kaufmann proves to the audience Otello has finally submitted himself to Iago’s poison, evil deeds have won and Vratogna slowly places the black mask on his face to emphasise this.
The morbid and machiavellian nature of the opera is held together by the use of dark and light. Agresta is dressed as the starry white pearl on stage with long dresses and shades of pastel pinks and greens. She is the only representation of nature, part and parcel of what she symbolises in Otello’s world. For Shakespeare, given her prescribed innocence and loyalty to her husband, this is pretty much what you’d expect from the original text.
During the scenes where Iago and Kaufmann are left alone to discuss their private matters and musings of Desdemona’s deception, the stage is blank. There’s nothing to distract us, but a profound focus on Otello’s fast decline and moral corruption. The use of dark and light is most obvious when you see that the captain is no longer in the spotlight. Kaufmann is set in the dark, lurking behind Vratogna like a shadow, listening into his sly conversations with Cassio, exaggerating the words, placing them out of context and weaving them into an artificial dialogue of his concocting.
It seems that with Kaufmann’s beginning lines referring to ‘Muslim pride’ Warner wanted his audience to see prejudice and jealousy seen through a microscope. The libretto mentions religion and physical characteristics which are left as they were written by Boito, and Vratogna also refers to Otello as the ‘thick-lipped savage.’ The question to ask might be whether this was a lazy approach for not addressing the issue of Otello’s race or leaving it to the audience – deliberately – to imagine Kaufmann’s Otello as an outsider.
As quoted by Warner in the ROH Relay, the director said, ‘this is about the human condition.’ The manipulative force one human being can have on another. Yet this is Otello, a man who has struggled from a young age, endured slavery and violent abuse. Otello is already damaged, and when he becomes captain of the fleet it doesn’t change that seed of insecurity and doubt that existed for most of his life. Desdemona put simply, is the pure soul who met Otello, fell in love for pitying his troublesome and destructive life, and got caught in the crossfire.
As for Kaufmann, only a rare breed of tenors can encompass the challenging role of Otello. Jon Vickers (Buenos Aires, 1963), Placido Domingo (1979 Met Opera), Aleksandr Antonenko (Royal Opera House, 2012) and the first UK Black tenor Ronald Samm (Birmingham Opera, 2009) are just a few names that come to mind. (See photographs of these tenors at the end of this post.)
Following this elite legacy of tenors, Kaufmann isn’t too far behind. Although true to form with his burnished tenor vocal range, he hasn’t reached the top list. Kaufmann is more known for his work as a Lieder and Wagnerian tenor, yet he manages to sing the lines through to the end. The height of his vocal tendency doesn’t lose its potency. Kaufmann has his own unique colouring – often recognisable to many – and in this particular role, he strings together his experience of Verdi roles to pull off a remarkable Otello. For a premiere, this is the best we can get out of Kaufmann, which is still a crowd pleaser – Kaufmann fans won’t be asking for their money back.
During Già nella notte, a love duet with Desdemona, Kaufmann emotionally grabs you until he finishes off those smooth and lyrical notes, and he doesn’t mess up. He’s in tight control. Kaufmann’s acting and vocal power are also displayed by how volatile Otello’s character is. Otello’s extreme regression is dramatic and Kaufmann hones in and makes it the thing of great theatre. He embraces the role immensely, but this is just the first step. He has his work cut out for him on the vocal front and likable as his voice may sound, he could try and lose himself, just a little bit more, in the music.
The death scene in the final act is spellbinding and gripping. I was completely lost in the scene (so much that I forgot my life within the last 20 minutes.) The bed staging and dim lights (which seemed straight out of DHF,) seem readily positioned for the murder to take place. The darkness around the bed instiled that ominous and seething tension that something fatal was about to happen. Agresta mustered the ‘stuff’ of Desdemona which the audience yearned for.
In Shakespeare’s writings, Desdemona’s character is ultimately flawed. Her love for Otello is not genuine. She falls in love with him by pitying his horrific past. She isn’t mentally strong either. I wonder, if an associate of my partner had attempted to get me to persuade him to forgive him for an unprofessional act, would I even consider doing what Desdemona does? Agreeing to speak on his behalf and give him a second chance? I think not. For this, Agresta shouldn’t be discredited for not trying to fight back or get away, as far as possible, from Otello. As per the text, Desdemona is meant to appear submissive and victim of an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. Agresta is unreservedly on board with the task. Her Desdemona is patient, loving and innocent.
It made me feel uncomfortable to see Kaufmann push Agresta abruptly onto the wall, for dramatic impact, yet this was purposefully done to portray the radical change in Otello’s character and convey the lack of authority and freedom Desdemona has, even though she is the captain’s wife.
Vocally Agresta is successful in capturing the hearts of the audience with her calm conduct and tender tone. Although it is not always ideal, she delivers a clean and refined line, which is sentimental enough to pity her Desdemona, especially during her performance of the Willow Song in the final act.
Together Kaufmann and Agresta manage to give a strong portrayal of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship. As much as they may be discussed as a token romantic couple, they are not. Remember: Desdemona’s love for Otello is not authentic, based on his valiant past tales, and he loving her for pitying him, both tenor and soprano make their artificial relationship seem both real and unreal. Audiences witness the unfolding of a new relationship that went straight into the marriage phrase without a cooling off period.
With “Un bacio” (one kiss) you can see Kaufmann listen to Agresta list the countless times his character had impressed his wife. The duet is undisputedly beautiful. Together their vocals lines suit one another. Kaufmann is slightly more impressive than Agresta, still, Agresta doesn’t disappoint.
The ROH Chorus of 86 members also deserve the extra acknowledgement. A powerful storm sets the opening scene in act 1. This is triumphantly held together by the ROH Chorus. Big voices as turbulent and crafted as the waves provide atmosphere and impress the audience.
I’ve seen Antonio Pappano live in a variety of ROH productions including Norma with Sonya Yoncheva and Mariusz Kwiecień in Król Roger. Each and every time, he comes across completely up to speed about the operas he is conducting. He often seems imbued with the actual text of the opera, let alone the music. During these Live Relays, Pappano takes the time to show the viewers snippets of himself playing the piano to parts of the opera in context.
At the night in the opera, I felt he had the right momentum and volume on the show. Many had criticised how loud his conducting was on the production’s first night, yet sitting from where I was, a week later on, I wasn’t distracted. The incoming SMASH of the cymbals in the beginning just woke up the audience, merely to represent the storm brewing. Musically, I couldn’t complain about the tone and assurance from the orchestra who performed astounding well. Where harps were gentle, drums were aggressive. Knowingly, the opera is about a man’s descent into jealousy and madness which would influence the music more than ever. It could be argued that as the story-telling gets on the way, the music becomes more complex. From Otello’s fresh new marriage and his victory over battle, the music’s complacency soon distorts into a complicated mix of chaotic splendour.
When Vratogna performs Iago’s Credo he appears menacing, vengeful and, most of all, evil. Paying particular attentions to his words, Boito ensures the audience know that Otello’s ensign is ambitious and relentless about getting to the top, even if it costs lives. His belief and call to Satan encapsulates his conviction that he can manipulate an innocent man. This is fully thrown into the gauntlet with Vratogna. He gives his showmanship a hundred percent, maintaining a machiavellian puppet master. On stage, there are stripes of light bursting through the floor and we see Vratogna with his god-like complex peer into the light as if he was introspecting the people and taking a closer look at mankind.
Vratogna – the baritone – can sing, but in this case, he is a better performer than he is a better singer. I’m not suggesting he cannot sing well. No, in fact, he sings very well. The playful presentation of ‘Roderigo, beviam!’ is stuck in my head and shall be stuck in my memory for a while. Holding his arms high and swaying from side to side, I shall remember those descending vocal scales, which went down a treat. But, it is those serpent eye movements that shall be harder to shake off.
Looking back, the production is a collective work driven by ambitious performers willing to take a dive and challenge their inner Verdi. If I had to point out what I wasn’t happy about in this production, it would have to be Keith Warner’s own stage design with designer Boris Kudlicka. At the Met Opera’s 2015 Otello, director Bartlett Sher and stage designer Es Devlin had a similar problem. (My review of the production here.) There is nothing wrong with utilising a minimal set, but where productions have triumphed is from their ability to move past their imagination. It would have been nice to see a staging that would wow me with adventure, one that wasn’t colourless and sombre from start to finish.
Part II: Otello – Live at Covent Garden, then in the Cinema
I recently posted an essay, I wrote back in 2015, on whether cinema and opera could truly draw in new audiences. (Click here to read post.) After much tiring research, hours of reading and interviewing, I discovered that, for the most part, new audiences didn’t develop this way. Cinema audiences were not more inclined to see the ‘real thing’ at the opera house.
Today I’m writing as a spectator who has seen both a) the live stage performance and b) the encore cinema screening of the same production – Keith Warner’s production of Otello with world-renowned tenor Jonas Kaufmann. (Yes, Jonas Kaufmann, that tenor who sang on The Last Night of the Proms in 2015. You know the ‘famous’, ‘good looking’, ‘handsome’… ‘dreamy’ one?)
Straight off, I can say I enjoyed both as much as each other, but for very different reasons. At the Royal Opera House (Wednesday 28th June), sitting there at the amphitheatre made me feel part of a larger event. I saw the opera come together in real time, and more importantly, I was physically there to hear, see and feel the opera become alive. Kaufmann’s voice and stage presence – depicting the commanding captain who rapidly turns into a jealous and raging psychopath – seemed a touch intimate than sitting miles away in a black box with none of the fancy red seats or golden interiors. In addition, the pleasure of hearing Verdi’s music performed by a live orchestra and seeing Maestro Pappano guide the musicians from the pit cannot be rivaled.
Then again, for the cinema screening (on Sunday 2nd July at Kingston’s Odeon) what may have lacked in performers’ physical presence was compensated with a high-quality camera zoom. All of those small gestures from Maria Agresta as Desdemona and all of those sneaky facial expressions from Marco Vratogna’s Iago, which you couldn’t see from the amphitheatre were clear to see.
Let’s be honest, only a few can afford to sit at the orchestral stall seats though. From here, you can see the performers up close and feel the orchestra’s movements from under your feet. Tickets for these prestigious seats range from £100-350. The cheaper ‘amphi’ seats go for £12-60, but if you compare that to the £20 cinema ticket, one could argue they get more for their cash. This will depend on what the paying audience prioritises first, presence in exchange for visual clarity, or quality of sound as opposed to up close encounters?
Still it is true that the music quality isn’t the same. The silver screen’s volume and amplification is customised for that particular audience, often that could be louder and harsher on the ears (and I’m talking ‘Michael Bay Transformers’ loud). Nevertheless, you can still have access and feel the raw talent from the chorus singers and soloists from the speakers. Also, more time is spent on focusing on what the camera director has offered to the audience. I felt my eyes wander less. Whilst looking on the screen I was solely struck by what was presented to me even if there were ten things happening at the same time on stage.
In some ways, it felt like I watching a film. The expectation of bringing out your phone during an opera is down to zero. It is actually considered bad practice but in the cinema, I saw it happen a few times when viewers wanted to look at the programme and understand who was singing which character, or read some information about the synopsis provided by the ROH, etc. Viewers also feel less guilty about running to the loos, yet given how brilliant the screening was going, hardly anyone left mid-aria.
Overall, I find the benefits for live opera and cinema screenings rather two-fold. Nothing can replace going to the opera house, but it seems that there is much to gather visually from being stationed at the cinema. The interviews during the interval (which included the new chorus director William Spaulding, and Kaufmann and Pappano in rehearsal) are bonus footage. It provides opera newbies a taste of what goes on behind the scenes. For those who simply can’t get a ticket to the opera house, they shouldn’t cast away the opportunity to see it live at the cinema. If there’s enough time, I’d go as far as encourage devotees to see the live and cinema screening, if it is at all possible. If the time and money is right, why not? (For your reference, I paid £54.00 for my amphitheatre ticket two months ahead of the opera, and £20 on the spot at Odeon. For me that is pretty good considering the purchasing was over a course of three months, and its lead character was the much-in-demand tenor Kaufmann.)
These are just my thoughts. The rest is entirely up to you.
Otello with Jonas Kaufmann is showing on July 6th and 10th. Gregory Kunde also performs the role of Otello on July 8th, 12th and 15th. To purchase tickets and find more information on bookings at the Covent Garden, click here. To check out the cinema viewings on Odeon, including ROH and Metropolitican Opera and more, click the link.
Want to read more?
Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, 2015 – Met Opera: Makeup free Otello in a cold and static world