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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, December 18, 2018

Opera Review: Going For the Throat

Stuart Skelton debuts in Otello.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

There's been a nasty cold rampaging around New York this month. It struck down your faithful correspondent last week, and also afflicted tenor Stuart Skelton, star of the Met's revival of Verdi's Otello. The tenor, acclaimed for his portrayal of Wagner heroes, was scheduled to sing the role for the first time at the Met last Friday, but it wasn't until Monday night that the big man felt well enough to appear. This revival of the Met's season-opening 2015 production featured Mr. Skelton opposite two of that show's stars: soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona and baritone Zeljko Lučić as the conniving Iago.

Unfortunately for the three leads, they were trapped in  Bartlett Sher's modern staging of the Verdi opera. Mr. Sher uses the opening tempest as a jumping-off point, with endless, shifting projections of stormy seas and St. Elmo's Fire seemingly more suited to Britten's Peter Grimes playing against the walls of the angled set. All the characters seemed lost onstage, wandering through shifting walled sets whose constant change of position makes blocking and directing a challenge. While the shifting crystalline walls create the illusion of palace corridors, the back-lighting (which was in this writer's eyes for about half the show) creates further problems.

In the middle of all this bustle, Mr. Skelton emerged to deliver a ringing "Esultate". The vocal problems started to become apparent in the lead-up to his big love duet with Desdemona, as the voice began to show cracks in the upper part of the passagio on their way to the high register. (This is not an uncommon problem when a tenor is ill.) However, he persisted despite having the cover ready, showing further cracks in his vocal line that were due to wear and illness. This was a far cry from the artist who thundered through Tristan two years ago, and the hard-edged tempos from the pit didn't help.

That brings us to the other big debut here: Gustavo Dudamel's first appearance in the Met pit. The conductor's enthusiasm for the material was tempered by his choice of odd, seemingly senseless decelerations in the big choral scenes of Act I, slowing down at a crucial passage with disastrous effect. Otherwise he set a merciless pace for the singers, and forced them to struggle to reconcile their performances to his choices, something that became apparent every time Sonya Yoncheva's Desdemona was. onstage. A bigger problem was a difficulty handling any scenes with more than two soloists: the Act III sextet came off as spotty and blurred.

Although Mr. Skelton's cover (the capable tenor Carl Tanner) was ready to proceed with the second half is needed, the assistant house manager was sent to the stage with a very different mid-show announcement. Mr. Skelton decided to continue, and begged the audience's indulgence. This may have allowed the tenor the mental "breathing room" to meet he challenges of this difficult part, as he found his groove in the second half of the opera. His hectoring of Desdemona in Act III sounded more shouted than sung, but he managed some dark and lovely textures in the fourth act. It's a promising start, and his performance will no doubt improve with the tenor's health.

Ms. Yoncheva's Desdemona is a known and welcome quality, and has only improved the more she sings the role. She was tender and limpid in the love scene with Mr. Skelton in Act I. Appropriately, she turned querulous and even annoying as she pled Cassio's case in the middle acts. The singer showed genuine terror and ferocity in the third act, portraying the doomed wife as going down fighting. Finally, with help from Mr. Dudamel, she achieved a sort of stoppage of time in the double moment of the Willow Song and the following Ave Maria. Her Desdemona is the anchor of this show, a fully developed woman and a performance that has only improved.

Met-goers are familiar with Mr. Lučić, the hulking, grizzled Serb who is one of the house's go-to's in the roles of father figures and Verdi villains. His Iago hasn't changed much: it's still sung with soft-edged menace and a tendency to coo and croon in quiet passages. And it's still stone evil, from the malice of the "Credo" to the great moment at the end of Act III where the crystal walls close in on a feverish Otello. The trio of leads were supported by Alexey Dolgov as an ebullient Cassio, James Morris (once a great Iago himself) as the stony-voiced Ludovico, and Jennifer Johnson Cano, whose portrait as Emilia (Iago's wife) makes one wish Verdi and Boito did more with that minor character.

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