The Metropolitan Opera presented Verdi’s opera Otello for the first time in its HD series. The result was perhaps the biggest disappointment since the HD telecasts started. The fault was twofold. First the sound was poorly audible for the first half of the performance. It sounded like a radio with the volume turned halfway down. The sound could be heard but not at an optimal level. It spontaneously improved just before the start of the third act. I don’t know if the problem was local or systemic. A friend on the west coast said there was no sound problem at his theater. But more importantly the conducting of Semyon Bychkov was lifeless, listless, uninvolved, and every other synonym for inadequate you can think of. The conducting didn’t even reach the provincial level, otherwise the production was very good. But Otello needs a great conductor. If you don’t have one leave it on the shelf. I don’t know if there’s any significance here, but Bychkov took his curtain call alone. He wasn’t led out by the prima donna as is customary. The applause was tepid.
There’s no praise I can bring to Verdi’s penultimate opera that would be new. Simply, it’s one of the landmarks of Western Art. It speaks directly to the heart about some of mankind’s basic states of consciousness – love, jealousy, envy, remorse, and not least evil.
The demands of the title part are well known. It requires volume, high notes, tremendous emotional and vocal stamina. It’s likely not an accident that Ben Heppner’s voice started to come apart at the time he assumed this role. I was at his first performance of Otello in Chicago in 2001. He had the sound for the role, but he repeatedly cracked at unexpected places. It was a great disappointment. Incidently the Cassio for that run was Jonas Kauffman. Of all the Otellos I’ve heard over the past almost 60 years the best was Mario Del Monaco followed by Placido Domingo who I thought would ruin his voice by singing it – shows how much I know. Next was Dimiter Uzunoz. I heard Uzunov’s first performance of Otello at the Met in 1959 with Warren and Milanov. He was great both vocally and dramatically, but obviously as no else seems to have heard of him his career quickly faded.
Tenor Johann Botha sang the first performance of this run of Verdi’s opera at the Met and then missed the next three because of a respiratory infection. He returned for the telecast with only the barest hint that he had just recovered from a pulmonary problem. He has a large dark voice that’s comfortable with the extraordinary requirements of the doomed general. The only problem is that he’s carrying at least 150 too many pounds. True, Otello is an immense role, but you can take this too far. Still, a very impressive performance.
The most fully realized portrayal was Falk Struckmann’s Iago. The German Bass-baritone has the high notes for Verdi’s personification of pure evil and he has the acting skills to fully express this great part. His Credo was brilliantly and terrifyingly presented. And he didn’t laugh at the aria’s end. This is the only time I haven’t heard Iago laugh at the end of the Credo. Even Toscanini allowed it. But Verdi’s production notes for the opera’s premiere read: “At the final words ‘e vecchia fola il ciel’ he [Iago] shrugs his shoulders, turns away and moves upstage.” I hope Struckmann’s example sets a new precedent.
Renée Fleming has been singing Desdemona at the Met since 1994 when the current revival was new. Her voice is still lovely and used intelligently. It’s not as lush as it was and she can’t launch the explosion of sound needed when she calls Emilia back as the latter is leaving her bedchamber in the last act. Nevertheless, the Willow Song and the Ave Maria were moving and effective – a great artist.
James Morris, still around after all these decades, was effective as Lodovico. Tenor Michael Fabiano, as young as Morris is old, has a pleasant tenor and acted well as Cassio, one of the meatiest secondary tenor parts around. The chorus per usual did all that was needed.
As mentioned this production by Elijah Moshinsky with sets by Michael Yeargan has been around for more than 18 years. It’s still very effective. The sets are time and place appropriate and the direction brings all that’s needed by this masterpiece. My only objection was the choir like arrangement of the chorus in the Venetian emissary scene at the end of the third act. Struckmann’s complete destruction of the Moor here was just the effect Verdi had in mind – evil distilled.
In summary, if we’d had a good conductor this would have been a fine staging of a great work. But that’s like saying if the sauce had been good the spaghetti would have been terrific. If you want to hear Otello conducted as it should watch the video below. The great Carlos Kleiber was behind the baton. You also get Placido Domino. It’s the 1976 La Scala staging.