The Corruption of Power: Otello at the Theater Basel

Verdi – Otello

Otello – Kristian Benedikt

Jago – Simon Neal

Cassio – Markus Nykänen

Roderigo – Karl-Heinz Brandt

Lodovico – Pavel Kudinov

Montano – Zachary Altman

Desdemona – Svetlana Ignatovich

Emilia – Rita Ahonen

Extrachor des Theater Basel, Chor des Theater Basel, Sinfonieorchester Basel / Giuliano Betta

Stage director – Calixto Bieito

Theater Basel, Basel.  Saturday, December 13th, 2014.

The Theater Basel is located in the heart of this beautiful Swiss city.  The house is an intimate size with an auditorium that sounds lively and clear.  Ticket prices reflect the location but views from all the seats are excellent.  It is home to a very fine orchestra and a decent chorus and is undoubtedly worth a visit.  The citizens of Basel are truly lucky to have a house of this calibre in their city.

Kristian Benedikt, Simon Neal, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel ©Hans Jörg Michel
Kristian Benedikt, Simon Neal, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel
©Hans Jörg Michel

Calixto Bieito is a featured artist this season in Basel and he has given us a powerful staging of extreme emotional impact.  Indeed, this was clearly the work of a theatrical master, a true genius of the operatic form.  Of course, this wasn’t a conventional Otello and who would expect otherwise?  What it was, was an exceptionally powerful one even if, at times, it was extremely difficult to watch.  Ultimately, what Bieito highlights is human nature – cruelty is endemic to the human race and man’s cruelty to another has been a constant throughout the whole of human history.  Bieito sees this particularly as a characteristic of those who have power.  The setting could be a refugee camp on the outskirts of Europe.  Barbed wire keeps ‘the people’ out.  The officers are men in suits, the chorus – unusually for a Bieito production – faceless masses.  Yet the fact that the chorus is so distant draws attention to the loneliness of those in power and to the fact that they are immune to pain and cruelty.  Consequently, Otello’s murder of Desdemona was the only possible outcome.  We were made aware of this from the very beginning with Jago handing Otello the handkerchief to dry his bloodied hands in the very first tableau.

Markus Nykänen, Simon Neal ©Hans Jörg Michel
Markus Nykänen, Simon Neal
©Hans Jörg Michel

There was a constant sense of brutality under the surface, where violence could break out at any time.  ‘Fuoco di gioia’ involved the officers spraying the chorus with sparkling wine – there were lots of very impressive effects achieved with smashing bottles.  The gradual disintegration of Otello and Desdemona’s relationship was painful to watch, the degradation of this formerly calm and collected woman absolutely harrowing.  One could argue that this is not something to watch for entertainment and it isn’t, Bieito is simply presenting a shocking situation that happens to thousands of women daily and it is absolutely horrifying.  Interestingly, Emilia was seen as complicit from the start – cold and unfeeling, she was just as guilty as her husband.

Kristian Benedikt, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel ©Hans Jörg Michel
Kristian Benedikt, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel
©Hans Jörg Michel

The show ends with the characters isolated on stage – physically separate, lonely, incapable of emotion.  We cared about Otello and Desdemona and yet, those faceless masses, what of them?  It’s a dark and nihilistic vision and yet, so true to the reality of the society we live in.

Kristian Benedikt, Svetlana Ignatovich ©Hans Jörg Michel
Kristian Benedikt, Svetlana Ignatovich
©Hans Jörg Michel

Musically it reflected the very respectable standards that this fine house can produce.  Kristian Benedikt gave us his full, strong and rich voice as Otello.  It’s a baritonal instrument that opens up quite thrillingly at the top.  Yet he took quite a while to settle.  The love duet was uncomfortable, support was lacking and he disagreed with the tempo from the pit, seemingly wanting to rush it along.  In the Act 2 duet with Jago, he also seemed to run out of steam just before the end.  And yet, there were the seeds of a great portrayal there.  There is an undoubted quality to the instrument and he fills the theatre admirably.  He also threw himself fully into Bieito’s staging, giving us an unbearably moving portrayal.  In a way, it’s a rough diamond of a voice, so much is great yet it is somewhat unrefined.  His commitment was, without a doubt, unquestionable.

Kristian Benedikt, Simon Neal  ©Hans Jörg Michel
Kristian Benedikt, Simon Neal
©Hans Jörg Michel

Simon Neal’s Jago was an interesting one. The voice was a good size and he had a strong sense of the line inherent to the piece.  His diction was wonderfully clear and he fully inhabited the character.  Yet, despite the fact that the voice carried nicely, he constantly pushed it so that it inclined to sharpness and the notes sung weren’t always those on the page.  Svetlana Ignatovich has a beautiful, large lyric soprano.  The middle is rich and vibrant although the tone grew a touch of metal and a hint of vinegar at the very top.  That said, she certainly had the measure of the role and that implicit sense of phrasing that cannot be taught.  Her diction was always crystal clear.  The willow song and Ave Maria were unbearably moving.  She soared over the Act 3 ensemble in a remarkable way.

Rita Ahonen, Svetlana Ignatovich ©Hans Jörg Michel
Rita Ahonen, Svetlana Ignatovich
©Hans Jörg Michel

Markus Nykänen offered us a distinctive tenor.  He really distinguished himself right from the opening chorus. The voice is bright and easily produced and has an openness that is beguiling.  It seems that every Otello I see I mention the Cassio but I am convinced that he is one to watch.  The remainder of the cast reflected the strength of the Basel ensemble.

Rita Ahonen, Svetlana Ignatovich, Simon Neal ©Hans Jörg Michel
Rita Ahonen, Svetlana Ignatovich, Simon Neal
©Hans Jörg Michel

The chorus was fine, singing with great amplitude in the opening chorus although coordination between pit and stage in the Act 3 chorus was somewhat tentative.  Their commitment was never in doubt and they gave absolutely everything they had to the piece.  Those difficult syncopations in the opening chorus were brought off with aplomb and they distinguished themselves by the sheer weight of sound they projected into the auditorium.  The orchestra played extremely well for Giuliano Betta.  The strings had real weight, the woodwinds were characterful and the brass had real impact.  Betta’s conducting was at times vigorous and always dramatic.  It was an extrovert reading, revelling in the brassiness of Verdi’s writing.  Yes, he let the tension sag in those passages at the start of Act 3 that are a minefield but overall, it was a gripping reading to accompany what was happening on stage.

Rita Ahonen, Kristian Benedikt, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel, Statisterie ©Hans Jörg Michel
Rita Ahonen, Kristian Benedikt, Chor- und Extrachor des Theater Basel, Statisterie
©Hans Jörg Michel

As a mise-en-scène this was undoubtedly the finest Otello I have seen.  It presented the work of a master capable of getting great dramatic performances from his cast.  The Personenregie was so exceptionally detailed and yet at the same time so wonderfully natural.  Musically, it was a fine achievement and showcased some vivid and highly committed performances.  I would recommend to anyone who can get to Basel to see it – it is a masterpiece.

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