The Royal Opera, London, Spring/Summer 2017

Giuseppe Verdi, Otello, Giuseppe Verdi, Don Carlo (1886 version),
Richard Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

When Zeffirelli cast Domingo in the role of Otello three decades ago for his acclaimed film of Verdi’s opera, there was little concern when the Moor appeared bronzed with rather more than a high Mediterranean tan. Critical sensitivities have shifted dramatically since and, at the present time, a white Othello, blacked up or in plain face, is an unlikely prospect. The operatic world has been said to lag behind but Keith Warner’s superb sellout production at Covent Garden, in which the role is shifted onto the supreme tenor of the new generation, ensured that the old question was again looking pretty elephantine: just how black is Otello (or indeed Othello) really supposed to be? Judging from their reaction at the end, most in the adoring audience seemed to find Jonas Kaufmann pretty moreish but the issue remained of just how Moorish he really looked. Arrigo Boito (the librettist), in his economic transformation of Shakespeare, retains much of the nasty racism of the original with references to Otello’s thick-lipped savagery. But he also further emphasizes Iago’s apparently ‘motiveless malignity’ (in Coleridge’s pithy phrase) as a product of sheer nihilism from one believing existence to be a cruel trick that leads to nothing (‘La Morte è il Nulla’ in his terrifying aria at the start of Act Two). This makes sense as a late-nineteenth-century refashioning of that relationship, but the matter of racial otherness does remain key to the love between Otello and Desdemona, not least in the desperately touching night scene (nicely lit by Bruno Poet) where she recounts his exotic wooing of her. Against this, Kaufmann looked if not exactly Germanic then, well, decidedly Jonas Kaufmann. Does this really still matter? It does, but for a different reason. The debate over makeup (and the role of make-believe) has been had and won by one side, for better or worse, but the opera presents special challenges. Many actors, black or white, could take on Othello successfully; very few tenors can make a success of Otello, surely one of the most complexly textured roles in the business. Kaufmann is clearly one and yet he presents audiences with a question about the conditions of dramatic illusion long before curtain up. What Warner does is to sideline the issue cleverly and thereby suggest implicitly just how subtle the matter of racial difference always is, and therefore how narrowly bigotries apply. In place of the business of skin, he addresses a different kind of blackness, and this is the matter of Otello’s mind.

This production is all about the psychodrama of Otello’s interior consciousness. Perhaps the most affecting scene has Iago and Otello in a form of sadomasochistic embrace at the end of Act Two, as the former forces a Greek tragic mask onto his master. The two writhe in symbolic inaction, drawing each other together towards a deadly nothingness. Marco Vratogna, extraordinarily compelling as Iago, is wormlike and squirming; Otello, the great naval leader, prone in hopeless inagency. For both, we must conclude, the work of life is done; all that is left is to force themselves jointly into that fatal last act. Antonio Pappano’s fast-paced conducting worked as a brilliant contrast: these two are rushing at life, seemingly without thought – or without the right thoughts; and it can only lead one way both musically and dramatically. Initially, Otello, in Kaufmann’s icy hands, had a foolish superiority about him that seemed right. The warrior is good for war at sea. On dry land, he is looking for control but is fagged out and, bluntly, lost – singing powerfully but with pseudo-strategic force in place of reasoned thought. If some might see a quality of Apollonian concert performance in Kaufmann’s version of Otello, then they are right to do so: Otello is performing his life but events are running at a pace he can’t master. Warring against superficial control, there is a kind of Dionysian madness bubbling up to boiling point that he only barely keeps at bay with the controlled voice. As such, it is a role that requires a demanding range of emotions. Kaufmann exhibited extraordinary dignity at moments (particularly in the opening Esultate); he sang with immense tenderness; and while he never really achieved the menace that is needed in the final act, he did just about capture something of the snarling madness of a hero who is put out of step by powers that undo his agency. There is a quality of callow childishness about Verdi’s Otello, which suggests that for all his vocal mastery, away from battle, he has no true identity. Killing is what he does best and Kaufmann was perhaps too much in control to convey this. Otello’s identity is vexed but he certainly was not German. Kaufmann had a little too much of the executive about him to seem like a psychopath.

Jonas Kaufmann as Otello, Marco Vratogna as Iago
© ROH. Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Maria Agresta as Desdemona, Jonas Kaufmann as Otello
© ROH. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Nevertheless, Warner’s vision of the piece served Kaufmann well. No matter that his Otello is on the whiter side of black, this production is a study in blackness and specifically it is about the blackness of both Otello’s and Iago’s minds. Ostensibly, they appear to be opposites but they are in fact curiously compatible since both seem lost in the domestic space. For this reason, we find each one standing alone at the start of the central acts of the opera before a blank, black stage. That set designed by Boris Kudlicka, is a real part of the success of the show as it draws us in subtly through uncertain shifts in its physical ground. At the opening, as the Venetian ship gradually appears out of the Mediterranean and the night descends towards drunken roistering, the stage literally shifts beneath the feet of the boisterous chorus. Later, the black set becomes Otello’s mind, darkening gradually before it hardens into the indelible light of their bedroom as he moves towards murder. Such clarity is horrifying, not least in the wonderfully moving scene of the Willow Song (sung with great sensitivity by Maria Agresta). This movement is how tragic drama ought to work: we are taken from doubt and confusion to a terrible apprehension of the irrepressible logic of things. Warner manages this through a complex use of moving screens that divides space to work as darkening chambers of the mind. There is something reminiscient of Japanese screens about the moving stage scenery that combines with the careful use of symbolically decorative props, but those screens themselves are decorated with the complex designs of a Mondrian drawing, The result is a curious and satisfying hybridization of lush Eastern mashrabiya latticework and cold Dutch finesse. It works well to suggest the collision of East and West. In addition to this use of space, the lighting brings out the sense of growing suspicion with a delicate ease that does not detract from the actors: nothing is certain in this world except that it is closing around Otello, the one player on stage who seemed at the start to have momentary possession of himself.

Otello was the highlight of Covent Garden’s summer season but it was paid good compliment by the revival of Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo, which was, by comparison, such a straight affair that it could risk making Warren Beatty look like Danny La Rue. But straight isn’t always a bad thing, even in these times of transophilic diversity, and those of us who earlier in Covent Garden’s season suffered Kasper Holton’s confused mangling of another equal masterpiece, Wagner’s Meistersinger, might prefer to risk death from boredom rather than indignation. On that earlier evening, it occurred to me several times that anyone who hadn’t developed a pretty close acquaintance with Wagner’s comedy might easily have been simply baffled by the goings-on. Even at the end of the work, when Holton had Eva apparently rejecting the very suit of Walter von Stolzing (the one we had been grinding weirdly towards for most of six hours), the greener members of the audience could well have been forgiven for failing to realise that it was a comedy at all. This is just bad manners, and so bringing the gracious inoffensiveness of Hytner’s production back to lead the audience in rather static fashion through the complications of Verdi’s Italian version of Schiller’s baggy play, is no bad thing.

The workings of nostalgic memory are curious and, on both occasions this summer, my mind was brought back thirty-odd years to my first experience of opera – just turned eight and in the stalls of the same house – when I was taken, a little ill-advisedly perhaps (it could surely now count as a form of child abuse), to see Colin Davis conduct Geraint Evans, Lucia Popp, John Tomlinson and Reiner Goldberg in Meistersinger. I didn’t know it at the time but this was a line-up. My thought then – rather callow and precocious in retrospect – was that the Walter didn’t look like the kind of bloke a girl would go for. In Hytner’s revived Don Carlo, there weren’t many distinct stars of the present but everyone seemed to my admittedly more-forgiving (because older) eye to look the very much the part. Bryan Hymel, as Carlos, sang a little high, I thought, but he had the air of slightly petulant heroism that the role requires. Carlos is harder and harder to love as the drama moves on, and anyway he cedes our sympathies to Posa, who seems at first to be a sycophant before emerging as the true hero of the piece. Simone Piazzola started coldly but worked up to those moments in the final act where Posa is insuperable in some of the most moving arias in the baritone repertoire. His paean to the poor abused folk of the Netherlands sounded disarmingly convincing and though he sang rather hard in the early parts, he developed a rich darkness as he approached the end. This was consistent with the growth of a character who needs to appear slightly superficial and confusing in the early parts, before stepping forward as the work’s most compelling figure.

Paata Burchuladze as Grand Inquisitor
© ROH. Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Bryan Hymel as Don Carlo
© ROH. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

For the most part, we were asked to offer little to credence but there was an odd infelicity – Ildar Abdrazakov’s Philip bemoaned his white hair as the cause of Elizabeth’s lack of ardour while appearing healthy and strapping enough to be in the front line of a Russian wrestling team. That doesn’t matter much. What Hynter did capture was a sense of the absolute solitude that Philip feels in complete power. ‘Passar veggo i miei giorni lenti!’ [‘I feel my days passing so slowly!’] he sings, and how many of us have the privilege to feel this? It is a most poignant moment in the opera and also one of the rare, confused emotions that opera can communicate fully by reminding us, through the time of music both that we never truly feel this, and also that, at moments of significance that we feel we do. Philip is in control of the whole known world – or in this case, the world of the opera house – and yet he is in complete isolation. This aria, sung with beautifully sensitive pathos by Abdrazakov, brings home the solitude of absolute power more clearly than any cleverly caught snap by the paparazzi, in which Melania brushes off Donald’s hand.

Don Carlos, the original Schiller play, is a bit of a mess – though of a kind that the Romantic period in literature does well in being, also, a truly innovative work of writing. No other period excels in having so many works of real greatness that are so seriously flawed: Byron’s Don Juan; Goethe’s Faust, Part Two; Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound; perhaps even Wordsworth’s Prelude. The original play doesn’t work terribly well as theatre because there are so many elements to it and, frankly, Schiller never seemed to work out whether his work was about love, a subject that he had been offered easily in taking on the material of the play, or the machinations and vicissitudes of power, the issue he was much more concerned with philosophically. He knew this and fell out of love with the play. Dramatically, his real achievements are The Robbers, his earliest attempt, which is still as raw an experience as it was when he was a near boy on the fringes of his local court detailing the kinds of up-endings of authority that the period of revolutions was to bring some ten years later, and Wallenstein, which, if rather overlong, is an extraordinary exposé of Trump-like delusion in a figure of capable power, who falls prey to a predilection for superstition. Verdi had a go at the former but it made for a pretty indifferent work in I masnadieri and though he did better with Luisa Miller, Don Carlo, alongside Otello, is the summit of achievement of two great dramatic minds collaborating at distance to form one supreme work. Auden, when tasked for money, gave a series of sketchy lectures on Shakespeare. As he got to the Merry Wives of Windsor, he gave up speaking and turned on the gramophone, stating that the only good thing to have come from it was Verdi’s Falstaff. Falstaff subsumes its original completely; Otello stands apart from it; only in Don Carlo does Verdi take an already important play and improve it dramatically.

One of the elements that makes Verdi’s reworking of Schiller utterly compelling is that there is so much emotion in the air – a good deal of it misdirected or simply inappropriate to the working of a neat plot. Both the opera and the play stumble towards their conclusion but Verdi manages to overcome a major failing in the play, which is that the characters too often seem cold as they appear to over think their roles. He takes, in other words, a play that is a formal mess, whose intellectual direction is bewildered, and realigns it into a different kind of emotional mess, which is one that disarmingly resembles true human life. The relationship between Posa and Carlos is clearly one of barely concealed homoerotic desire, but so, in a way, is that of Philip II with Posa – a perceived connection on the king’s part that makes up not only for the raw solitude of extreme power but also for the failure of his marriage to Elizabeth. Eboli’s love for Carlos too appears to come from nowhere but feels real enough in Verdi’s music. Real evidence of Verdi’s dramatic genius, however, lies in another and more vexing connection and it is one that Schiller could never really have seen because he was rather uninterested in the subtle workings of religion upon otherwise intelligent minds. This is the relationship between the king and the Grand Inquisitor. The bass duet that follows Philip’s solitary aria is haunting because its terms are so unclear. It is a petrifying moment in the opera but also has about it the quality of an amatory engagement. There are so many sexy scenes in Verdi’s opera – scenes in which one feels that love is the real theme, rather than power – and yet attendant to that love, in the tragic world, is pain and terror. Hytner’s production drew this out well, not least in the horrifying Auto-da-Fé scene. It was extremely cleanly sung by a very diverse, international cast and Kristin Lewis was particularly successful as Elizabeth of Valois.

Matthew Scott is reviews editor at The London Magazine.

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