Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Anja Harteros as Desdemona

Actually, Verdi’s opera is called “Otello”, and Shakespeare’s play upon which is it based is - as we al know - “Othello”. But Anja Harteros’ Desdemona at Covent Garden was so beautiful and believable that she made the story hers. Not that Otello (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) wasn’t magnificently tortured, and Iago (Italian baritone Lucio Gallo) wasn’t slimily evil, but I have always found the character of Desdemona to be rather insipid and unlikely. Not this one - she was tall, regal, intelligent, and fought hard for her life. And there was also plenty of psychological believability in her falling in love with Otello in the first place. Not only that, but she sang the “Willow Song” so wonderfully..

Iago commences his dirty work.
...but I also have to admit that the scene that really brought  tear to my eye was Otello’s death. Opera singers these days are such consummate actors. This version of the opera was a revival of a 1987 Elijah Moshinsky production - gorgeous set design by Timothy O’Brien -  and Moshinsky himself is directing the revival. It is beautiful, lush, set in the period of the Venetian Republic’s heyday, and does wonderful justice to Verdi’s sumptuous choruses and big dramatic vision.

The storm at sea with which the story opens is brought to life by lightening, crashing sound, a huge cannon and a siege machine filling the stage - along with about fifty people singing at the top of their lungs. The program tells us that there is 3-metre metal “thundersheet” hanging from a wall at the side of the stage, a wind machine, and a bass drum to create the storm’s Noises Off. At other points there are four separate bits of orchestra (mainly trumpets) playing from the wings or up in the flies. There is also a large bell - the Royal Opera owns a number of large church bells, which are as old as the theatre itself. The one used in ‘Otello’ is struck with a leather mallet. Apparently if you hit metal against metal you get shards and sparks. The player of the bell, which has to be hit very hard, wears airport-grade hearing protection. 

Huge opening.

The climax of the storm if the entry of Otello himself, a big tenor voice singing his lungs out form the very beginning, and continuing to do so until the very end, when he realises how he’s been taken in by the evil Iago, and has murdered his wife unjustly. But there is a lot of subtlety in “Othello” - it is, after all the work of the Master. It is a very deep and layered examination of psychological truths. A Moor, once a slave, rises to be a trusted commander in a foreign army, and marries (clandestinely) a Venetian aristocrat’s daughter? He seems to quickly believe the worst of her...but there is a suggestion that he doesn’t really think he ‘deserves’ her, or that he is living a dream. At the end of their great love duet in Act I, it occurs to him that he should just die now, since he has reached the pinnacle of possible happiness. 

It's not going well.

But there is not time here enough for a deep and meaningful discussion of “Othello”, or Shakespeare’s very modern-seeming takes on questions of race, anti-semitism and colonialism - how is it that Shakespeare seems so modern? It is claimed that half the children in the world today will study Shakespeare in their schoolwork. 

Meanwhile, back in the opera house, the Italian Verdi’s take on the tragedy of Othello and Desdemona is bringing a tear to quite a few eyes. 

Here's a review.

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