Psychologically Probing: Otello at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Verdi – Otello

Otello – Russell Thomas
Jago – George Gagnidze
Cassio – Attilio Glaser
Roderigo – Burkhard Ulrich
Lodovico – Ievgen Orlov
Montano – Kim Byungil
Desdemona – Yu Guanqun
Emilia – Ronnita Miller

Kinderchor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Paolo Arrivabeni.
Stage director – Andreas Kriegenburg

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, June 8th, 2019.

As the curtain rose on tonight’s revival of Andreas Kriegenburg’s 2010 production of Otello at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the audience was greeted by an imposing, proscenium-high vista of the interior of a ship, seemingly full of refugees.  Kriegenburg has created a world in microcosm, full of anonymous people who go about their daily business under the supervision of the officers who oversee them.  It makes for a very interesting setting for the work – albeit one that perhaps raises more questions that it answers.  Jago is seen plotting openly in front of the people, being watched singing his ‘credo’ surrounded by a group of children.  It raises questions regarding power and agency – if these people are aware of what is happening, why don’t they intervene?  These are people who observe yet never participate.

Photo: © Barbara Aumüller 2010

There is, however, a clarity to Kriegenburg’s storytelling that I found most satisfying.  In Act 2, he set up how the handkerchief came into Jago’s possession, and then onto Cassio, in a clear and logical way.  Similarly, in the big Act 3 ensemble, seeing how Otello ripped it apart to make something that looked like it was going to be used to strangle Desdemona was fascinating.  What Kriegenburg gives us is a logical framework for the story of a man who is losing it all, damaged by battle and doomed to never live the life of happiness that he longs for.  There is a tendency, at times, for the visual overload to become distracting – particularly in the Act 3 ensemble where we see a woman suffocated by a man, in a way heavy-handedly and gratuitously previewing what was due to happen in Act 4.  I’m also not quite sure what the point of the ladies tossing their hair around in the opening storm scene was – but I imagine there was some explanation.  Similarly, the children’s chorus hold up drawings of houses as they sing to Desdemona in Act 2, suggesting the displacement of war, but again, this is an idea that seems underdeveloped.  Still, Kriegenburg does give us a show that is eminently revivable with an overall satisfying narrative clarity.

Tonight marked the first European performance of Russell Thomas in the title role, following successful concert performances in the United States, as well as a run of staged performances in Toronto last month.  Thomas is one of the finest Verdian tenors before the public today and his assumption of this summit of the tenor repertoire was most anticipated.  His is a highly unique and completely compelling Otello.  He doesn’t have the forward, clarion sound of Gregory Kunde, or the baritonal heftiness of Vladimir Galouzine, for instance.  What he does instead, is sing this music with his voice and his technique, with an honesty of approach that makes his breakdown all the more overwhelming.  Thomas gives us a man haunted by what he did in battle and desperate for a happiness that he knows, deep down, he will never achieve.  There’s a vulnerability to the heroism that I found unbearable to watch, achieved through a masterful use of vocal colour.  For instance, the cry of ‘gloria’ in the final act, rather than a defiant shout, became here the sound of man who knows that his life was meaningless.  The repeated cries of ‘morta’, each varying the tone, were heart-breaking.  He was able to seduce in the love duet, shading the tone down to a thread, filling it with loving warmth.  His ‘a terra! E piangi’, rather than being hurled out with venomous force, had a tenderness to the sound that took us into the heart of Otello’s sorrow and regret.  There were occasionally patches of dryness to the tone in passing but Thomas also gave us some exhilarating high notes, nowhere more so that in a rousing ‘esultate’ that thrilled and excited for the evening ahead.  Thomas is by far the most psychologically incisive Otello I have seen, and I very much look forward to seeing him grow even further in the role over the next few years.

George Gagdnidze was an equally fascinating Jago.  The owner of a firm baritone with a maliciously acidic edge, his was a Jago that was very much sung off the text, planting seeds in the mind of his victim that could only end in tragedy.  His isn’t the biggest voice to have essayed the role but his vocalism was always absolutely firm throughout and his use of the text utterly gripping.  Yu Guanqun sang Desdemona in a well-schooled, pearly soprano.  She has an impressive technique and made judicious use of portamenti throughout the evening.  The text was always clear.  Yet, I must admit that Yu, ultimately, left me cold.  This was in part due to the relative lack of a complex palette of tonal colours – the repeated cries of ‘salce’ unvaried – and also due to the fact that it felt she was singing over the text rather than with it.  Her Desdemona was undeniably well sung but felt interpretatively cold, particularly next to Thomas and Gagnidze.

In the supporting cast, Ronnita Miller was a fascinating Emilia, making so much more of her character than we often see.  She negotiated the awkward tessitura with ease.  Attilio Glaser was an ardent, lyrical Cassio sung in a handsome, healthy tenor.  I was also impressed by Ievgen Orlov’s Lodovico, sung in a big, resonant bass.  The house chorus was on thrilling form, pouring out a wall of sound into the theatre.  The sound was big and bold and tuning was always secure, with never a sense of a war of vibratos competing with each other.  Similarly, the house orchestra played well for Paolo Arrivabeni.  He obtained some ravishing transparency of string tone in ‘era la notte’, and in the love duet, while the brass was utterly secure throughout.  The cor anglais soloist in the willow song played with improvisatory freedom, making it feel that it was being written right there and then for us.  Arrivabeni’s tempi were generally sensible, but it did feel that he allowed tension to sag a little too much in the final act, I longed for a sense that the drama was being pushed to its inevitable conclusion – instead, it felt rather static.

Tonight undoubtedly showed this superb house at its best.  We were given a staging of admirable narrative clarity and it was always musically satisfactory – and frequently much more than that.  Above all, this was an evening that belonged to the two leading gentlemen.  Gagnidze gave us a Jago that allowed evil to triumph through probing psychological influence.  Thomas gave us a revelatory Otello, one that took us deep into the soul of a man damaged by war and completely unable to hold on to the most important thing in his life, utterly Shakespearean in ambition, scale and achievement.  This was a deeply compelling evening.

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