Otello

Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Metropolitan Opera House
Metropolitan Opera House, New York
From

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Sonya Yoncheva and Aleksandrs Antonenko

Director Bartlett Sher is as comfortable in an opera house as a Broadway theatre. As a result, he brings to the Met an ability to drill opera singers into more than competent actors, which is the case in this 2015 production of Otello.

Featuring costumes that evoke the second half of the 19th century and, at times, bring to mind Les Misérables, the 2½-hour-long evening is filled with spectacle from its opening moments which feature a terrible storm.

This highlights not only the skills of the director but also British designer Es Devlin and her lighting colleague Donald Holder, who makes a memorable contribution, constantly enhancing a set that is largely built around gigantic, sliding Perspex palatial frontages.

In a week when the Black Lives Matter movement has taken over the headlines across the globe, it feels odd to see Otello played by a Caucasian, something that could no longer happen in a theatre.

Going a step further and uniquely, Latvian Aleksandrs Antonenko, one of a trio of Eastern Europeans in the leading roles, does not perform as the Moor in blackface make-up.

In the title role, his powerful tenor is matched by the efforts of Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva taking the role of Desdemona and Met favourite from Serbia Željko Lučić continuing his good work from Rigoletto in the same season.

This is as well, given the epic drama and musical fireworks that Verdi put into his final opera, composed at the advanced age of 71.

Everything about this production smacks of Metropolitan Opera House grandeur. The big sets are complemented by spectacular costumes to adorn the stars and a large chorus, all supported by the ever-impeccable orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The costume choices can go beyond an attempt to please the eye, particularly in the case of Desdemona, who wears virginal white in the opening acts, before switching to startling, symbolic scarlet by the time that she is accused of adultery.

The story should be familiar, that of a brave general who marries across racial barriers. In the operatic version, his embittered ensign Iago feels belittled and has no qualms about taking whatever steps are necessary to do down the general.

Utilising Desdemona’s good heart and an addictive weakness on the part of Cassio played by Dimitri Pittas, Lučić’s convincingly evil Iago fires up and then stokes Otello’s quick temper by instilling the seeds of rage and jealousy that once released cannot be quelled.

The musical highpoints come in solos and duets, both when Iago works on Otello and, subsequently, the Moor rages as desperate Desdemona, buoyed up by the support of Jennifer Johnson Cano in the role of Iago’s wife Emilia, vainly attempts to pacify her tormented and tormenting husband.

The Met has made sure that they select the best performances and performers for these online presentations and this is no exception.

Pleasingly, not only do all of the stars sing their hearts out but, to great dramatic effect, they also inject as much emotion into their acting as their singing in a memorable production.

There are a number of ways of tapping into this opera and others at will. The Met Opera On Demand service offers annual ($149.99) and monthly ($14.99) subscriptions as well as a one-off payment ($4.99) for those who have limited time or only want to watch the occasional opera.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher