Monday, February 22, 2016

Verdi: Otello (“Live” at the Metropolitan Opera, N.Y.C., October 17, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Metropolitan Opera’s October 17, 2015 performance of Verdi’s Otello, first presented to movie theatres as part of their “Live in HD” series and rebroadcast on KPBS yesterday at noon, was an estimable production of what I would regard as the finest opera Verdi ever wrote — indeed, arguably the finest opera ever written by an Italian composer. My favorite Italian opera by a composer who wasn’t Verdi or Puccini is Mefistofele by Arrigo Boïto, who also wrote the libretti for Otello and Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, both having agreed that if they were to collaborate, they would seek their story sources from Shakespeare. (My next-favorite Italian opera by someone other than Verdi or Puccini is Bellini’s Norma.) Verdi came out of retirement to compose Otello and Falstaff, and Otello premiered at La Scala in Milan in 1887 — not coincidentally, four years after the death of Wagner. Eduard Hanslick, the Viennese music critic Wagner viciously caricatured in Die Meistersinger, felt compelled to defend Verdi against the charge of Wagnerian influence, saying that Verdi “owed nothing to the composer of Tristan und Isolde” — which was true, but ignored how the influence of Wagner’s earlier operas, particularly Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, can be felt in Verdi’s later work. (Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are the only Wagner operas Verdi owned scores of, and Lohengrin was the only one he ever saw performed — though he must at least seen a copy of Tristan, since he’s on record as praising it.)

Because Verdi’s career was so long — his first opera, Oberto, was written in 1837 and premiered in 1839, and his last, Falstaff, was premiered (also at La Scala) in 1893 — he grew and changed along with the operatic form itself, from the conventionalities of bel canto with its strict divisions between recitative and aria, its emphasis on vocal display, and its treatment of opera largely as a showcase for star singers, to the newer, more flexible way of writing operas that, if it didn’t altogether dissolve the difference between recitative and aria (even Wagner didn’t eliminate that difference completely; as John Culshaw pointed out, Wagner’s mature operas have “recitative” passages where Wagner quiets the orchestra and allows what the singers are saying to be heard distinctly, and “aria” passages in which he unleashes his orchestra at full blast and the voices become part of the overall texture because what’s important is the emotion being conveyed, not the actual words), certainly smoothed it out. When Otello came out it was hailed as Verdi’s masterwork, yet another milestone in operatic history from the composer who had already significantly advanced the form with the 1851 work Rigoletto and had continued to push the envelope of what was both possible and practical on the operatic stage. Since then a number of critics have tried to re-evaluate Verdi’s oeuvre and rate the middle-period hits — Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata — higher than the last works, but for me Otello remains Verdi’s masterpiece, a work informed by the changes in music in general and opera in particular throughout the 19th century but also pushing the envelope. Done properly, Otello is a rush of energy; though Boïto’s libretto smoothed out the complexities and ambiguities of the play, what remained is a taut, vividly told story of a man torn between love and war, between the guileless heroine Desdemona and the cunning, manipulative Iago (Boïto, who’d called his opera based on Goethe’s Faust Mefistofele, wanted Verdi to call his Otello opera Iago), and Iago’s manipulation of Otello into suspecting, then believing, that his wife has been unfaithful and finally killing her (and then himself when he realizes she was guiltless). Verdi and Boïto tell this story in music and words that rush through the catastrophe, always going for the ironic disjunct between Otello the brilliant, savvy commander and Otello the uncertain lover. Otello is one of the greatest operas ever written, and properly performed (or at least conducted as well as it was by Arturo Toscanini, who as an orchestral cellist had participated in the 1887 premiere, and who recorded the work in 1947 and tore through it with spirit and aplomb despite a weak cast) it’s an energy rush as well as an intensely moving tragedy.

The Met mostly did it honor with this production; the staging by Bartlett Sher was somewhat ambiguous as to when it takes place (judging from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, particularly the uniforms on the men, it seems to have been relocated to the 19th century) but at least it didn’t intermix eras and periods the way so many “Regietheater” (literally “director’s theatre,” in which modern-day directors simply ignore the original story and text and use the piece as an excuse to put on stage bizarre and contradictory images that often don’t make sense) productions do these days. The way slabs of scenery are shoved around (often by women costumed to match the opera’s period) to form the outsides of buildings and thereby change the setting in mid-act is occasionally risible but more or less works — there isn’t anything in the settings of Otello as silly as the house on the merry-go-round that afflicted the Met’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (in which the heroine is supposed to be blind, and I couldn’t resist joking, “No, she’s not blind — just dizzy from the way you keep turning her house around on that damned turntable!”) — and for once in a modern opera production we’re seeing things that help project the work effectively instead of fighting with it. The conductor is Yannick Nézet-Séguin, whom I’ve previously criticized as slow and lacking energy, but though he isn’t Toscanini he does move the opera effectively and sounds the score well. The cast is a bit more problematical: all three of the principals have Slavic names — tenor Aleksandrs (that’s how it’s spelled on the Met’s Web site) Antonenko as Otello, soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona and bass-baritone Zeljko Lucic as Iago — and though they sing Italian opera idiomatically enough, they aren’t always the best voices you could imagine in these parts. Antonenko has just the right trumpet-like tone — the so-called squillo (“ring”) for which opera singers are often praised — but on occasion he overdoes it and becomes shrill, and when I heard the two other tenors in the piece, Dimitri Pittas as Cassio and Chad Shelton as Roderigo (the guy Desdemona jilted to marry Otello, and who has never forgiven her for it), I wondered if either of them might have made a better Otello than Antonenko. (Carlo Cossutta did rise from singing Cassio in a 1962 Covent Garden production under Georg Solti to recording Otello, again with Solti conducting, in 1978.)

Antonenko did — or, rather, didn’t — do one thing that put me off of his performance more than any limitations in his singing per se: he did not do anything to make himself look Black. Yes, I know that in the original short story by Italian author Geraldi Cinthio on which Shakespeare based the play, “Otello Moro” is simply the character’s name — and it was the English translator of the version Shakespeare read who read “Moro” as “Moor” and therefore created the plot point that Ot[h]ello was Black — but Shakespeare did make that an integral part of his drama (Othello even opens one of his speeches, “Hap’ly, for I am Black”), and for Verdi, who revered Shakespeare, that would have been a sacred, unalterable part of the story. I made fun of Plácido Domingo (one of the three greatest Otellos, along with Lauritz Melchior — the absolute best, even though we only have about 15 minutes of excerpts to judge him by — and Jon Vickers) for putting on some light-brown makeup that made it look like he’d just come out of a really good tanning salon, but at least he tried (though my dream of what an operatic Otello should look like is what Laurence Olivier did when he acted the play in 1964, complete with dark black face makeup, a nappy black wig and even holders in his nose to push out his nostrils and make them look more African; as my mother said at the time, no one seeing him in that production without knowing who he was could have guessed he was white in real life); Antonenko didn’t even try, and if Ot[h]ello isn’t Black a good deal of the complexity of the story, particularly the sense of alienation that makes him not quite trusted by the Venetian officials even though they need his skills as a general, disappears.

Zeljko Lucic’s Iago was rather curious; he doesn’t chew the scenery (even in the big aria “Credo in un Dio crudel,” where Boïto’s text and the jagged music Verdi set to it practically demand overacting — when Otello premiered there were rumors Boïto had actually composed the “Credo” himself, and it is similar to Mefistofele’s big aria “Son lo spirito che nega,” but it’s less likely for Boïto to have written the “Credo” than for Verdi to realize the verses Boïto had written demanded that sort of setting); instead he plays the part sort of like Conrad Veidt as the Nazi in Casablanca, a functionary who regards doing evil as his duty and doesn’t get any big immoral thrill out of it. The best of the three principals was Sonya Yoncheva; though she didn’t sound that much like Maria Callas, her voice had some of that kind of weight and peculiar “bottled” quality, and whereas Desdemona, in both the play and the opera, all too often comes off as literally too good to be true, Yoncheva brought enough vocal weight and dramatic sense to the role that we didn’t get the impression with her, as we sometimes do, that she’s marking time through the first three acts just waiting to get to her big scena — the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” — she does in Act IV just before Otello comes into their bedroom and kills her. (Renata Tebaldi had just the right voice for Desdemona, and it’s only a pity that to hear her you have to endure the horrible Mario Del Monaco as Otello in both her recordings of the role.) I’d love to hear Yoncheva as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s first Shakespearean opera — the timbre of her voice seems more appropriate for a Shakespearean villainess than a Shakespearean heroine — but she’s still quite good here.

Overall, despite some deficiencies, this Otello does full justice to both Shakespeare and Verdi, and watching it was a wrenching experience; I found myself crying at the “Mandolinata” (the heart-rendingly beautiful tribute to Desdemona sung by the Cypriot townspeople, which evokes Otello’s line, “If she be false, then heaven mocks itself!”) and shaken by the ending. This is the sort of production a repertory opera company like the Met should be doing: one that legitimately projects a classic text and looks for its inspiration in what the original composer and librettist (as well as the writer for their story source!) intended rather than some conceit of the director’s (though I’ll admit I’ve liked some modern-dress opera productions, including the marvelous Met Rigoletto in which Michael Mayer moved the action to 1960’s Las Vegas and made the Duke Frank Sinatra and his courtiers the Rat Pack — that one worked because there was a legitimate parallel between the moral corruption of the Mantuan court of the original and the moral corruption of Las Vegas, soaked in alcohol, drugs and Mafia money); it’s the sort of show that’s a good introduction to Otello as well as one that will give pleasure to someone like me who knows the opera well (including having seen it, with Domingo in the title role, in San Francisco in 1978).