A Revelatory Otello

Verdi – Otello

Otello – Gregory Kunde

Jago – Carlos Álvarez

Cassio – Marcelo Puente

Roderigo – Mario Cerdá

Lodovico – Mischa Schelomianski

Montano – Choi Seungpil

Desdemona – Yu Guanqun

Emilia – Cristina Faus

Escolania de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats, Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana

Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana / Zubin Mehta

Stage director – Davide Livermore

Palau de les Arts, València. Sunday, June 16th, 2013.

I have been coming to València to visit the Palau de les Arts for four years now and it’s easily one of my favourite houses. They have an outstanding orchestra and chorus, the architecture is magnificent, the city welcoming and the climate fantastic. It’s a great experience and one that should be on any opera lover’s European itinerary. Yet, the house has a number of issues. One is that the season is announced extremely late. For example the 2012/3 season was not announced until September last year which meant that I had already planned my fall visits. In the event it sounded like I missed out on an exceptional Bohème. For this visit to Otello, the website had no information of when tickets would be on sale and it was only due to the fact that I called and found out that by calling I could get a 20% discount on seats that I could book. It transpires that the 2013/4 season has been planned and the operas are known but no casting/booking information is available. There is no way that a house with international pretensions can flourish if it continues to be run this way. Programming relies on the tried and trusted and ticket prices (especially for a region where money is tight) can be on the high side. I appreciate that a lot of these issues are politically-related – corruption is reputed to be endemic in the city – and the house is facing a severe funding crisis. Yet València is a wonderful city to visit and if the house worked on marketing itself to international visitors (offering combined hotel/ticket packages and improving public transit to the venue would be a good start) and concentrated itself on being open and welcoming to Valencians by offering a comprehensive education program, bigger social media presence and perhaps more activities (London’s Southbank Centre is a great model), then the house may have a chance to survive. It pains me to see the difficulties they are having. It’s a wonderful venue.

Tonight’s Otello though was nothing short of a triumph. I first saw Gregory Kunde a decade ago as Énée in Paris. He was superb in the role, much better than the heldentenors that opera houses usually insist on casting. His Otello however was sensational. The voice carries exceptionally well, the top free and easy and completely secure throughout the range. How wonderful it is to hear an Otello with glorious bronze tone, who doesn’t bark, who gives exquisite pianissimi in the love duet and who also has the volume for a thrilling ‘esultate’. What’s more, his singing was thoroughly Italianate – the style, the language, the use of words – it was impeccable. Simply outstanding.

Carlos Álvarez was also an outstanding Jago. His voice is somewhat on the small side for the role but he didn’t force it and was so much better for that. His insinuating Jago was a good foil for Kunde’s Otello but I felt that the production, which portrayed him as a cartoon villain, didn’t do justice to the subtlety of his portrayal.

After seeing two exceptional Verdi sopranos in Anja Harteros and Lianna Haroutounian in the last month, Yu Guanqun had a lot to live up to. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen them I would have been impressed by her ease throughout the range but the other problem is, and I hate comparing contemporary singers to those of the past, anyone who has heard Margaret Price sing this music can never forget it. Yu was a somewhat anonymous Desdemona, little was made of the words and while she attempted some beautiful pianissimi the voice couldn’t quite sustain them. She had a good line and was technically pretty secure, the voice is a good size and she has an easy top. These are all great qualities but next to two towering performances in the other roles, she just wasn’t quite on the same level.

The supporting cast was pretty solid without being particularly distinguished. Choi Seungpil stood out as Montano and Cristina Faus was a nicely fruity Emilia. The choruses were – as always at this address – simply outstanding. The Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana has superb blend, amplitude and volume and put many other opera choruses to shame with the beauty of tone they produce. The children’s chorus was exceptionally well-prepared too. The Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana played as if their lives depended on it. Every section was superb with rich string tone and some fantastic woodwind playing (the cor anglais playing in the willow song was beautifully done). Zubin Mehta’s interpretation as a whole was certainly gripping despite a few tempo choices that didn’t quite convince. The Act 3 chorus was taken extremely slowly but did give the chorus ladies a chance to show off and sustain a magnificent top C. In some other places (the duet at the end of Act 2 for example) Mehta chose some weighty tempi that the music couldn’t quite sustain. These are minor quibbles though and in the context of the whole it was a great achievement.

Davide Livermore’s staging however left something to be desired. It started off promisingly enough with video projections of the sea on the rear of the stage and Otello descending from the flies to give his ‘esultate’. Sadly it rapidly descended into desperate signposting that for every one good idea there were five that frustrated. The good included the transition of Otello physically bullying Jago at the start of Act 2 to the situation being reversed by the end of the act. The bad included red lights around the stage when Jago gave his ‘credo’ (the only thing missing that would have made it more cartoon-like was some smoke), Otello and Desdemona lying down and copulating at the end of Act 1, and some embarrassing dancing for the chorus ladies in Act 2. Desdemona was this blonde maiden in a white dress which I presume was meant to signpost her innocence but simply made it look clichéd. Worse was the fact that Otello was given black makeup – surely we are beyond this these days? There are so many more subtle ways to show Otello’s ‘otherness’ and certainly a much more subtle approach would have benefitted Álavrez’ Jago in particular immensely and made the evening much more interesting.

Musically this was a terrific evening dominated by two outstanding performances. But it was more than that, it was a theatre doing what it does best, offering opera at the very highest level to a captivated public. I very much hope that the difficulties facing the Palau de les Arts are surmounted soon and I look forward to many more visits to this beautiful city and incredible venue.

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