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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, May 3, 2016

Opera Review: Well, There's Your Lion

The Met brings back Bart Sher's Otello.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A rit of fealous jage: Aleksandrs Antonenko returns as Otello.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2016 The Metropolitan Opera.
At the Metropolitan Opera under the aegis of general manager Peter Gelb, it has become standard practice to open the fall season with a new production, and to bring that staging back in the spring for radio broadcasts, usually with a few casting changes. The current revival of this year's new Bartlett Sher Otello is back on the boards, and Superconductor finally had the opportunity to attend a live performance of this revival on Monday night.

This run features the return of tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello and baritone Željko Lučić as Iago. These are the roles that they sang together last fall. On Monday though, there was evidence of decline. Mr. Antonenko, who lost his voice in a live broadcast performance on Saturday, April 23 is finally back onstage after skipping the April 28 show. Here, he sang with tentativeness, a trait that is absolutely fatal in any portrayal of Verdi's hard-headed Moorish general. He wasn't helped by the sluggish conducting of Adam Fischer in the Met pit, a poor substitute for Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the fiery French Canadian who led the earlier run.

Mr. Antonenko pressed his voice to the utmost for the opening act, strolling into the muddle of choristers on the stage and belting out a bright-toned "Esultate!" that somehow failed to excite. Perhaps it was that the choristers were crowded to the front of the triangular set, cowering beneath computer-generated projections of waves and eldritch St. Elmo's Fire that Mr. Sher offers in the place of a realistic set. (These images look like they are in the wrong opera--they might be better employed in Der fliegende Holländer.) The drinking chorus (bawled by Mr. Lučić) took place among rickety wheeled tables that would not pass inspection at IKEA. Poor Cassio (Alexey Dolgov) looked like he was about to break his neck in the name of partying down.

The second half of Act I introduced Hibla Gerzmava, a plush-voiced Desdemona who fit right in with Mr. Sher's lone Shakespearean idea: that Otello's wife is a strong woman who chose her husband and her fate, not a wilting, fading flower. However, Ms. Gerzmava's drab gray shifts made her just another background figure in the first half of the opera, an object of Otello's obsession that disappears all to easily behind the sliding, plastic three-dimensional walls that make up the set. Re-costumed in crimson, she was at her best in the third act, and it would be interesting to hear her with a conductor who can keep the momentum going in the big crowd scene: the last "grand opera" finale that Verdi ever wrote.

Ahh yes, the walls. This production features a modular, rolling set of clear plastic (pushed by helpful stagehands in ninja black) that Iago seems to orchestrate, willing the rooms of the Cypriot palace to move and change around Otello, adding to his confusion and fevered, jealous rage. Other directorial touches (that were not visible in the opening night telecast) included a battery of white strobe lights aimed into the eyes of those people sitting in $320-a-pop orchestra seats and presumably meant to blind the viewer to the rest of this drab show. There's also a bed that is the only real piece of furniture here, which appears and disappears in the second and fourth acts.

Mr. Lučić seemed glum and unenthusiastic on Monday night, seeming to sleep-walk through Iago's career of evil. This was evidenced by his pallid Act II 'Credo' and his general lack of venom in the big Act II and III scenes, where the "honest" ensign's manipulations drive poor Otello over the edge. One wished that James Morris (stuck in the small role of Lodovico) could suddenly switch parts and treat the house to his fading but still serviceable voice. Mr. Dolgov was wobbly as Cassio and not just because of the rolling tables. The Met chorus sang well but looked like they wished they were in the old production by Giancarlo del Monaco where at least they had a fake onstage fire to keep themselves warm during "Fuoco di goia." Here, they mill about with a few lousy torches.

The fourth act offered some salvation for this troubled show. After a very long orchestral prelude (with another projected screen-saver on the vast scrim curtain) Ms. Gerzmava sang a very slow but lucid "Willow Song," capturing that feeling of utter helplessness that characterizes Desdemona at her end. Mr. Fischer launched directly into the following "Ave Maria" but he hurried the singer along, and the phrases here seemed disconnected and lacking in emotional weight. Go figure. Following a violent murder scene, Mr. Antonenko fell on his knife on stage left as most of the other figures onstage simply turned their backs. His death scene was made ludicrous by a series of lurches across the vast Met stage, falling every couple of feet in his struggle to reach Desdemona's corpse. At least his voice held out. 

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