Vocal thrills and emotional truth: Oper Frankfurt’s Otello

Verdi – Otello

Otello – Vincent Wolfsteiner

Jago – Dimitri Platanias

Cassio – Mario Chang

Roderigo – Michael Porter

Lodovico – Andreas Bauer

Montano – Franz Mayer

Desdemona – Elza van den Heever

Emilia – Jenny Carlstedt

Chor, Extra-Chor und Kinderchor der Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester / Pier Giorgio Morandi.

Stage director – Johannes Erath 

Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurt.  Saturday, November 15th, 2014.

Another first tonight and my first time at the Frankfurt Opera.  It’s a relatively intimate venue but they have a superb ensemble, really interesting programming and excellent casting.  Tonight’s Otello was a revival of Johannes Erath’s 2011 staging and united a cast of fine singer-actors on superb form with an intelligent and stimulating staging.

Vincent Wolfsteiner & Elza van den Heever © Barbara Aumüller
Vincent Wolfsteiner & Elza van den Heever © Barbara Aumüller

The action takes place on an open stage which provides the only set for the whole evening.  Costumes are contemporary and reflect an army camp in a battle zone such as Afghanistan.  There is a significant amount of visual detail that one inevitably misses things in a first viewing.  The stage opens on pairs of boots scattered across the stage.  As the chorus enters, they change from military fatigues to civilian clothes setting up a clear link between the constant presence of the threat of war and the daily life on the camp.  The idea of rank and clothing is a constant one in the show.  Otello wears a large fur coat which sets him apart from the troops and Desdemona at times wears a wedding dress. As Jago’s sense of his own power increases, he puts on these items of clothing from time to time.  As in many military camps, privacy is in short supply and there are constantly people present.  Despite the fact that the love scene and murder happen in the same place as the rest of the action, unlike the recent ENO production, it felt perfectly natural – it concentrates the mind on the claustrophobic nature of the micro-society in which the characters operate.  The Personenregie is detailed and creates flesh and blood characters who really engage with each other.  The biggest impact was how Otello’s trajectory from proud leader to violent jealousy to broken-hearted lover was perfectly draw and executed by a fearless cast.

Elza van den Heever & Vincent Wolfsteiner © Barbara Aumüller
Elza van den Heever & Vincent Wolfsteiner © Barbara Aumüller

Vincent Wolfsteiner’s Otello was revelatory.  Granted, he doesn’t have the most Italianate of timbres – it’s a very bright and forward sound, in fact that tone reminded me in many ways of that great Saskatchewan tenor.   He is however an exceptional musician and a superb actor.  He perfectly managed to combine movement, text and line to create a deeply affecting portrayal that was fascinating to watch and listen to.  I found it remarkable how he varied his tone between the love duet in Act 1 and the rages in the later act.  Just when you thought he had given everything the voice opened up even further and found even more thrilling reserves of power.  The tone is always steady, the emissions always even, never under any undue pressure.  The way he hit the high B on ‘amore e gelosia va dan dispiersi insieme’ towards the start of act 2 was absolutely gripping.  He also sang the love duet with great tenderness and shading.  I also liked how he built ‘dio! mi potevi’ from absolutely nothing to a rich and full-voiced climax, never showing a hint of strain.  Wolfsteiner isn’t perhaps the most conventional of Otellos but he is undoubtedly a fascinating one.  Oustanding.

Mario Chang, Dimitri Platanias & Vincent Wolfsteiner © Barbara Aumüller
Mario Chang, Dimitri Platanias & Vincent Wolfsteiner © Barbara Aumüller

The final duet of Act 2 was a real highlight in the way that Wolfsteiner and Dimitri Platanias’ Jago blended so well together aided by some terrific brass playing from the Frankfurt orchestra.  Platanias has an exceptional instrument.  The voice is rock solid and even throughout the range.  The tessitura holds no terrors for him and he tears up the stage as Jago.  The Credo was sung with a genuine rare strength and the voice is big with real amplitude.  Yes, there are perhaps a few too many aspirates to qualify for a genuine legato but make no mistake, Platanias is outstanding.

Elza van den Heever © Barbara Aumüller
Elza van den Heever © Barbara Aumüller

Elza van den Heever was a glorious Desdemona and the role fits her like a glove.  The voice, with a fast vibrato at the top, has great amplitude and she rode the Act 3 ensemble wonderfully. The willow song and Ave Maria were beautifully phrased and sung with a rare generosity that was completely affecting.  There was real chemistry between her and Wolfsteiner in the love duet and as Desdemona passed away, van den Heever was deeply moving in her final interjections.  She might not have the purity of tone of other interpreters but the creaminess of the tone and amplitude of the voice mean that she makes the role her own and sings it like she is the only person in the world who can sing it.  That is the mark of a great performer.

Michael Porter, Jenny Carlstedt, Elza van den Heever, Mario Chang, Dimitri Platanias  © Barbara Aumüller
Michael Porter, Jenny Carlstedt, Elza van den Heever, Mario Chang, Dimitri Platanias © Barbara Aumüller

The rest of the cast was of excellent quality.  A real find was Mario Chang’s Cassio sung with a rich and wonderfully-phrased tenor.  There is a real beguiling warmth to the voice and I have no doubt he will go far.  Jenny Carlstedt was superb as Emilia – so often we hear Emilias who struggle with the tessitura of the final act but she took everything in her stride.  The chorus was very good – the basses somewhat woolly of tone in the opening chorus and ensemble could have been tightened up ever so slightly (the act 3 chorus had a few premature sopranos) but they more than gave an excellent account of the piece. The orchestra boasts a fine brass section but strings had some moments of sour intonation, especially in the final act.  That said, the brass sound in the closing act 2 duet with Wolfsteiner & Platanias is alone worth the price of a ticket to Frankfurt.   Pier Giorgio Morandi’s conducting was extremely well placed – the hours flew by – and never drew attention to itself.

Elza van den Heever & Vincent Wolfsteiner © Barbara Aumüller
Elza van den Heever & Vincent Wolfsteiner © Barbara Aumüller

Getting to see a production of Otello where all three of the principals are well matched is a rare experience but that is precisely what we got tonight.  In many ways it wasn’t a conventional Otello but it was so highly convincing that there was no mistaking its quality.  Above all, it completely managed to encapsulate the tragedy of a man losing everything, together with the violence that lingers under the surface of a leader traumatized by battle.  Despite desperately wanting to hold onto what is important, as a result of his experiences, he was completely unable to rationalize his emotions.  Musically it was highly rewarding, sung by a superb cast on truly outstanding form and conducted with clear lines and a sure pace.  A great evening.

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