(Verdi) (1887) (Metropolitan Opera, November 2015) (Dir. Bartlett Sher) (Film Dir. Gary Halvarson)
How can you go wrong with Shakespeare, Verdi and a Drinking Song? A great source (though suffering from some tinkering), seamless music with some outstanding features, and tight structure, yet it lacks the charm of, for example, the less synoptically impressive Il Trovatore. And it needs top-notch musical control, lest it blurs into mere noise.
Othello by W.S. is a difficult beast because it is the most subtle hence most delicate of dramatic flowers. Iago is perhaps the most baffling and ingenious villain (who, by the way, cops the Bard’s biggest structural error – he would never have run with such a lumpen device as Desdemona’s handkerchief).
From natural storm to human storm, the opera is a terrific series of bold brushstrokes to suggest, rather than delve into, the play’s examination of jealousy and suggestion. But it is totally hitched to the drama, unconcerned with traditional operatic bells and whistles – it is the Verdi Wagner might have liked most.
Otello – Aleksandrs Antonenko – great vocal work by this Latvian tenor (on the whole), but since he is Latvian, the Estonian in P can’t resist wielding the needle just a smidge. First, he is white as Edward Scissorhands. Next, when reference is made to “the burning sands of your native land”, you spray your wine over the seat in front. Third, he plays Otello like Ricky Ricardo suspecting Lucy has succumbed to an unwholesome attraction for Bill Holden.
Desdemona – Sonya Yoncheva – sensational. Natural, Organic, Bewildered and real. When she foresees her doom, and is subsequently smothered, you are shocked
Iago – Željko Lucic – something of a Snidely Whiplash villain, unfortunately.
Conductor – Yannick Nézet-Séguin – absolutely superb. The music links very closely to the characters’ psyche in Otello, and the conductor keeps up and enhances the action immaculately.
The sets are ho-hum, frankly. The costumes are based on Venetians and Cypriots in “the late 19th century.” Producer Bart Sher must have been sick the day they taught history at school; otherwise he’d have known that Napoleon rang down the curtain on the Venetian State in 1797.
Racist Alert: We can’t take it seriously. Though Robert Hughes tagged racism as a modern scatter word of abuse, we simply find it funny. How can you take discrimination based on skin colour or physiognomy seriously these days? As Sean Micallef asked the anti-discrimination policewoman: “Should we laugh at racist jokes?” and getting the answer “No”, responded: “What if they are funny?” We just can’t swallow the failure to ‘blackface’ – what’s really wrong with that, if you are playing a great Moorish Soldier?*
One does not have to go black-and-white minstrel, as Norman Gunston did so cringingly. Why not get a dusky man to sing the part? Jessye Norman was not the only great opera star of colour, was she?
Orson was not scared of The Dinge. “If I like the race…?”[*They got Lucian Msamati to play Othello at Stratford-upon-Avon.]