Seeing Double: Otello at the Royal Opera House

Verdi – Otello

Otello – Jonas Kaufmann
Jago – Marco Vratogna
Cassio – Frédéric Antoun
Roderigo – Thomas Atkins
Lodovico – Sim Insung
Montano – Simon Shibambu
Desdemona – Maria Agresta
Emilia – Kai Rüütel

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage director – Keith Warner.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Thursday, July 6th, 2017.

Verdi – Otello 

Otello – Gregory Kunde
Jago – Željko Lučić
Cassio – Frédéric Antoun
Roderigo – Thomas Atkins
Lodovico – Sim Insung
Montano – Simon Shibambu
Desdemona – Dorothea Röschmann
Emilia – Kai Rüütel

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano.
Stage director – Keith Warner.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Saturday, July 8th, 2017.

This new production of Otello was certainly seen as an ‘event’.  The reason – Jonas Kaufmann making his debut as in the title role.  The run was double cast with two sets of principals.  In the other was Gregory Kunde whose Otello in València in 2013 blew me away with his clarion power and Italianate pointing of the words.  Kaufmann’s Alvaro in Forza in Munich back in 2014 struck me as superb Verdi singing, but since then he has taken an extended leave of absence due to vocal issues.  This new production marked his comeback to the Royal Opera following his sabbatical.  Being able to see two leading singers within forty-eight hours was an extremely tempting proposition.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Fortunately, I won’t have to spend too long on Keith Warner’s staging.  It looked like any other Otello from the last fifty years (although I admit I haven’t seen them all).  Desdemona was costumed in a white dress, to signpost her innocence, which she tastefully accessorized with a mint-coloured coat in Act 3.  There was much moving of furniture to provide visual stimulus and a lot of artful falling to the floor to provide dramatic stimulus (Kaufmann in particular spent a lot of time descending to his knees).  The chorus was parked at the back unimaginatively.  Desdemona was murdered with a plush pillow but at least before doing so enjoyed a turndown service from her maids.  As a staging for international stars to jump into with limited rehearsal, it works.  As a piece of theatre, I’m less convinced.  I longed to see some character development, something to stimulate the mind as well as the ears.  I’m not sure we got it.  The opening tableaux of each part with Otello and Jago seen on stage or the statue of the lion crushed into pieces in Act 4 felt like afterthoughts.  In many respects, this was an Otello without drama.  Yet with the Kunde cast something happened.  There was a chemistry between the principals missing in Kaufmann’s cast so that one was never left with any doubt that Röschmann’s Desdemona and Kunde’s Otello were two people deeply in love – this of course meant that the suspicions of betrayal had even more resonance.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
I think part of the reason was simply that Kunde has been singing the role for a few years already but Kaufmann was making his role debut under what were very difficult circumstances (the pressure of a cinema screening and DVD release, the extreme heat in London currently).  Certainly, things didn’t start off too promisingly with Kaufmann’s ‘esultate’ failing to ring out and vowels distorted in order to get the sound out.  As the evening developed, it became clear that Kaufmann as yet lacks the clarion cutting power that Kunde has in order to dominate the stage vocally.  Dramatically, Kaufmann was an introverted, introspective Otello – an interesting reading certainly, but also one that didn’t quite carry over into the auditorium.  His desperate cry of ‘a terra! E piangi’ was sung with the ardour of a husband asking his wife to water the plants.  His diction was foggy and there were quite a few unsupported pianissimi that bordered on crooning.  I didn’t quite feel comfortable in his vocalism and there was a troubling buzz at the core of the tone that didn’t sound especially healthy.  While this was an admirable attempt at creating an alternative reading, and I hope that with time Kaufmann will be able to hone it and grow into the part, I left the theatre with the overriding impression that he is still feeling his way through the role.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Kunde on the other hand was in very fine voice tonight.  Right from that opening ‘esultate’, the bright clarion top ringing out, he took the role and ran with it.  One always felt that the voice would do everything he asked of it, from honeyed and well-supported pianissimi in the love duet, to the journey from despair to conflicted resolution in ‘dio mi potevi’.   The way he shaded the A-flat on ‘paradiso’ in the love duet was absolutely magical.  There is a little dryness at the bottom but the top really does open up magnificently, filling the theatre with a concentrated burst of sound.  Kunde mapped out the character’s journey from warrior to lover to murderer not only through his vocalism, but also through his acting and use of text with impeccable diction throughout.  Indeed, this was something that really distinguished his cast – the three principal roles were really sung off the text and genuinely lived with drama, something that felt absent in the other cast.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
An interesting comparison also between the two Jagos.  Marco Vratogna gave us quite a conventional reading – his relatively dry baritone meant that he did sing with the text but the tone was also somewhat monochrome making his quite a conventional villain.  Željko Lučić was somewhat more sophisticated.  His is a plusher, softer grained sound though not lacking in heft.  His Jago planted seeds in Otello’s mind with single words.  If the very top of the voice showed some slight discolouration in the ‘credo’, Lučić’s sophisticated and insinuating reading of the part gave much pleasure.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Maria Agresta sang Desdemona with an attractive soprano that certainly carried over the ensemble in Act 3.  She shaded her music beautifully throughout but her phrasing was often perfunctory and it felt that in the ‘willow song’ that she was singing the dots on the page rather than combining them with the text to draw us into Desdemona’s world.   Röschmann’s Desdemona was something really quite special.  Right from her very first entry, she gave notice of a very special evening to follow.  The voice, with its attractive fast vibrato, is instantly recognizable.  This was a stronger Desdemona than most, one really got a sense of her betrayal and she refused to accept it meekly.  The Act 3 ensemble took her to her limits, the voice showing some signs of strain, but her big Act 4 scene was pure emotion distilled into those ten or so minutes.  Her cry of ‘ah Emilia addio’ descending from the A-sharp was absolutely heartbreaking – so much pain in the sound yet with its beauty never compromised.  Most impressive.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
The remainder of the cast was the same across both evenings.  On Thursday Kai Rüütel’s Emilia injected a welcome burst of dramatic impetus that noticeably raised the temperature.  It’s a role with a very awkward tessitura and she was very brave although the registers didn’t quite sound integrated.  Frédéric Antoun was a handsomely-voiced and lyrical Cassio and Sim Insung impressed with his large and resonant bass.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
The chorus showed admirable commitment and standards have clearly improved with their new director William Spaulding, displaying a tightness of ensemble and unanimity of dynamics that hasn’t always been the case previously.  There are still issues with intonation however – the ‘evviva’s in the opening chorus were painfully flat in the sopranos and the blend and tuning in the Act 2 chorus was compromised by a battle of vibratos.  They certainly made a massive noise and their commitment was never in doubt.  The orchestra also had a good evening – the brass were on their best behaviour, although as is often the case, some of the string intonation was not for those of a sensitive disposition – the tuning as Otello entered in Act 4 was unfortunate.  There was an impressive depth of sound there though and the cor anglais in the willow song was sensitively played.  Antonio Pappano’s conducting I found somewhat episodic.  Far too often tension would sag (as in ‘era la notte’) with volume being used to compensate for a lack of tension later on.  This was especially noticeable in Thursday’s ‘dio mi potevi’ which, rather than building up with unbearable tension, seemed saggy and then just blasted out at the end from nowhere.  Phrasing was also perfunctory, in the ‘willow song’ especially, where it felt that it really needed a tenderness of phrasing in the strings that we didn’t quite get.  He did however bring out the darkness of the score’s tinta in many places but it also felt like a reading that wasn’t settled.

Photo: © ROH / Catherine Ashmore
Two very different evenings in the theatre.  One that was thrilling, moving and devastating and another that was ultimately a work in progress.  The overriding feeling was that the Kunde / Röschmann / Lučić cast had so much more to give vocally, while the Kaufmann / Agresta / Vratogna cast was singing at its limits.  The staging wasn’t especially insightful but at least gave us something to look at.  And yet, tonight’s Kunde, Röschmann and Lučić cast felt like a very satisfying night at the opera.  We were given singing that was genuine and got right to the heart of the work with believable characterizations and chemistry between the principals.  Above all, there was a sense that we were watching people living their characters and giving us a performance of rare honesty.  I very much hope that the Royal Opera is able to capture this cast on film for DVD release.

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2 comments

  1. I attended last rnight’s performance of Otelo with some trepidation. I had taken a day off from my hectic NHS job to book the tickets online and found that the only day that I could attend: having to travel down to town from the “frozen North” Kaufmann was not singing! However Gregory Kunde and Dorothea Roschmann made a fabulous and believable couple. I listen and respond to music with my heart rather than my head and was moved to tears by “the willow song”: long a favourite of mine having first heard it through a recording of Joan Sutherland. Luckily, as I prefer to sit in the front row I am an expert at “silent crying “! My family is cursed with deafness and my hearing is definitely deteriorating so I am making the most of it now!
    I was lucky enough to bump into Maestro Pappano after the performance and thanked him for a truly wonderful evening. My thanks to the full cast and orchestra. I would; as someone who perhaps lacks the sophistication of a critic but appreciates beauty highly recommend this performance.

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