Otello at ENO

Verdi – Otello­

Otello – Stuart Skelton

Jago – Jonathan Summers

Cassio – Allan Clayton

Roderigo – Peter Van Hulle

Lodovico – Barnaby Rea

Montano – Charles Johnston

Desdemona – Leah Crocetto

Emilia – Pamela Helen Stephen

 Chorus of English National Opera, Orchestra of English National Opera / Edward Gardner

Stage director – David Alden

English National Opera, Coliseum, London.  Tuesday, September 16th, 2014.

This production of Otello marked the opening of one of the most promising seasons that English National Opera has offered in a long time.  Yet, I approached it with some trepidation, not due to the excellence of the chorus and orchestra – surely the finest opera chorus and orchestra in London – but due to ENO’s insistence on performing every work in translation.  Is there really a need in the age of surtitles to translate everything?  Certainly the Komische Oper in Berlin doesn’t think so as it starts to perform more and more works in the original language.  There is definitely a case for opera in the vernacular – the Royal Opera’s recent stab at Dialogues des carmélites sung in largely frustratingly unrecognizable French by a mainly Anglophone cast was a perfect example of a show that should have been performed in translation.  That said, in a global city where well over a third of the inhabitants were born overseas, ENO’s language policy can be said to be outdated.

I mention the language because it struck me while listening to this Otello tonight that perhaps the performance was limited by having to perform it in translation.  This was not a particularly Italianate Otello and part of that was due to missing the particular specificities of the language (the way the words ‘alla riva’ perfectly match the dotted rhythm in the opening chorus for example) but also in many cases due to the lack of the line inherent in Verdi’s music.  Edward Gardner’s conducting was problematic.  He obtained some terrific performances from the outstanding orchestra and chorus – yes there was some sour intonation from the cellos at one point and there was one widely vibrating chorus soprano trying to out-sing everyone else – but the whole thing felt episodic.  He let the tension sag far too often (such as at the opening to Act 3) with the result that gear changes were far too awkward.

David Alden’s staging was also problematic.  He and tonight’s Otello, Stuart Skelton, gained considerable acclaim for their Peter Grimes in this same house revived earlier this year. Yet I felt in a way that I was watching Grimes Mark 2 tonight.  I applaud Alden’s decision not to ‘black-up’ Otello and instead look for other ways to demonstrate Otello’s otherness. I can’t say I’m convinced that they succeeded.  Essentially this is the story of one man’s disintegration as he descends into homicidal jealousy.  What we got instead was the story of someone who had already disintegrated and for whom murder was inevitable.  Each aspect of Otello’s disintegration should be more shocking than the next – a man who was once a great leader completely losing it.  I missed a sense of gradual change in his character so that each act became more shocking than the last, leading up to the worst act of all – murder.  Instead, we were given a character who had already reached the point of no return and from the very beginning it felt that the murder was inevitable.  Personenregie was efficient but the direction of the chorus seemed perfunctory.   This was no mass of individuals but a large body that was moved efficiently around. There was a fair bit of unfortunate ‘movement’ (Maxime Braham) that distracted rather than added to the direction.  The lighting (Adam Silverman) however was ingenious making great use of shadow to show Otello dominating the stage.

The singing was variable.  The most satisfying for me was Allan Clayton’s Cassio sung with a liquid tone, evenly and easily vocalized and impeccable diction.  Indeed the diction of the whole cast was superb.  Every word was clear.  Leah Crocetto’s Desdemona was interesting.  In the love duet I found her tone slightly shallow and she was just south of the note. It’s a big, ample and generous instrument and she was much happier in later acts where she was able to sing out and reveal a rich generosity of tone.  She and Clayton were the two singers who showed an understanding of the Verdian phraseology that otherwise seemed to be missing.  She is still relatively young and this is the kind of voice that one grows into and I have no doubt that she will be a very interesting artist.  I would very much like to hear her sing Tosca in a few years’ time.

Jonathan Summers’ Jago was not the conventional portrayal that one might expect.  With his dryness of tone, he gave us an interpretation that was much more about text than line.  He gave us crystalline diction and a character whose journey was easy to chart.  It was somewhat monochromatic both vocally and dramatically but he was never less than watchable.  Stuart Skelton’s Otello is a solid achievement.  Every note was well and truly sung and he made remarkable attempts to sing quietly and with great security.  The very top of the voice was slightly constricted but this fed into his interpretation of the character’s frustration.  As with his compatriot Summers, this was not a conventional Italianate interpretation of the part – it was very much led by the text rather than the line and the tone was bright and penetrating.  That said, I would be most interested to see Skelton perform the role with a different director in the original language to see how the interpretation changes.

As I mentioned above, the ENO Chorus again cemented their reputation as a fine body – the syncopations in ‘avranno per requie la sferza dei flutti’ were done with aplomb.  They sang with great amplitude although the blend was compromised by an individual voice sticking out.  This was for me an evening that didn’t quite live up to its promise.  Dramatically I found it lacking and vocally it was certainly interesting.  It is worth seeing for Clayton’s Cassio and seeing a promising new singer in Crocetto.

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Photo: (C) Tristram Kenton
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