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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Opera Review: Heart of Glass

The Met opens with Bartlett Sher's new Otello.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The ocular proof: Iago (Željko Lučić, left) reminds Otello (Aleksandrs Antonenko)
why Verdi considered naming this opera Jago.
The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Verdi's Otello, which opened the company's 2015 season last night in a special gala performance, contains a preponderance of good directorial ideas, supporting a strong cast in this adaptation of Shakespeare's drama. This performance was broadcast live in Times Square on that crossing's giant television screens, and lost none of its power to shock and entertain despite having to compete with tourists, fire trucks, chattering desnudas and a street performer in an Elmo costume who stopped bothering said tourists long enough to watch the drama unfold.
This staging is by Bartlett Sher. This is his sixth production at the Met and his first attempt at mounting high Verdian tragedy. Mr. Sher updates the action to the late 19th century, stripping down the stage picture and allowing the actors to become the center of the drama. He does indulge in a lot of violence toward women in this show, with a chorus member getting her face slashed by a stray sword in the Act I brawl, Iago's brutal treatment of Emilia in Act II and finally, Otello's dreadful murder of his wife in the finale. The set (by Es Devlin, designer of the current U2 tour and here making her Met debut) is a series of sliding, nestling glass boxes, which move according to Iago's design, becoming bed-chamber, town square, what-have-you. At the end of Act III, the walls literally close in and become Otello's own prison, lit with scarlet to reflect his fevered mind.

A performance like this is a convincing argument for Otello as Verdi's greatest achievement in music drama. The score was magnificently played by the Met Orchestra under the loving baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Mr. Nézet-Séguin is an exemplary Verdian with a feel for the big choral scenes that anchor the first and third acts of this opera and an eye for detail elsewhere. The Storm Scene was played with all kinds of hellfire, helped by the simple image of projected waves and flashes of lightning and St. Elmo's Fire on an undulating scrim curtain. The real flames burst out of the orchestra pit, with the Met players putting their backs into this music and giving a detailed performance that came through even in Times Square. The chorus too was tremendous and tight throughout, and up to their usual high standards.

Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko learned the role of Otello from conductor Riccardo Muti, and in fact sang it at Carnegie Hall a few years back. Little has changed. This is still a large voice that turns hard under pressure, but has the power to cut through in the big moments like "Esultate!" and the Act III mad scene. However, he sounded tentative and even querulous in the softer passages, with the weakest moment being an unsightly tremolo that threatened to a wobble in the very last bars  of Act I. All those peccadilloes vanished in the last scene, as he went from tender rapture to brutal murder to suicide in quick succession.

In Sonya Yoncheva's first performance as Desdemona, she took a bold and invigorating approach.  This was no wilting flower but an independent woman whose world is systematically destroyed, first by Iago's plotting and then by Otello's madness and gullibility. Ms. Yoncheva owned the second half of this opera, with her tearful public confrontation with Otello and the Willow Song showing both sides of this complex character. Her "Ave Maria", subtly accompanied by Mr. Nézet-Séguin was the highlight of a star-making performance.

Željko Lučić is a terror as Iago. Clad in leather armor and moving with a fearsome swagger, the baritone captured the oily goodfella-ship that conceals the poisonous evil of his soul. The best moment: the Act II Credo monologue, which stopped the action dead with its power and black-hearted tone. Mr. Lučić received the night's first applause at this point, but it was just the starter for what proved to be a twelve-course meal of manipulation and evil. In support, Dmitri Pittas was a strong, virile Cassio. Jennifer Johnson Cano was a fiery Emilia. Chad Shelton made a solid Met debut as Rodrigo. Bass Günther Groissböck was memorable in the small but sonorous role of Ludovico.

In the lead up to last night, the biggest talking point was Mr. Sher's decision to have Mr. Antonenko play Otello without the traditional "blackface" makeup that has been used by Caucasian singers in this role since the opera's premiere. Without this device, the similarities between Otello and Iago made them mirror images of each other. It was helped by the fact that the two Slavic singers are similar in build, facial structure and demeanor. If this approach was indeed by design, it was an absolute master-stroke.

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