BWW Review: OTELLO , Royal Opera House
As Eliza Doolittle found out when plucked from her pitch just outside the Royal Opera House, "H"s do matter. So don't expect Othello: do expect Otello, the opera written by Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito, two men who, unlike their inspiration, had actually been to Venice and knew Venetians.
Which is one reason why this production underwhelms - is there any sense of the Italian anywhere in this Italian opera? The set looks like it was inspired by Scottish castles with their narrow gaps for archers, the Cypriot sun is almost entirely absent and, I'm afraid to say, Gregory Kunde looks more like a roadie for Metallica than the noble Moor brought low by Iago's fiendish campaign of disinformation. Looking at so jarringly incongruous and ugly a set for three hours or so took its toll.
Which was a shame as the opening storm was an extraordinary feat of Donner and Blitzen, musically and theatrically, Antonio Pappano conducting the orchestra with vim and the chorus (underused henceforth) shrieking fearfully and then celebrating boisterously as Otello saw off the Turk and even seemed to conjure the gods to destructive action - like a real life Prospero.
Kunde may have moved like Robert De Niro in the much-maligned CGI fight scene in The Irishman, but he sang the tough role well even if the music was occasionally less than sympathetic in its volume. Ermonela Jaho fared rather better, with Pappano dialling back his charges and allowing her to deliver "The Willow Song" with piercing sensitivity - as ever, your heart bleeds for Desdemona. Freddie De Tommaso is also excellent as the poor sap Cassio, set up by Iago as Desdemona's fake lover.
As with the play that inspired the work, the opera should probably be called Iago because it is his jealousy, his cruelty, his racism that animates the action. Carlos Álvarez does his best work lurking in the shadows, pulling the strings, finding and exploiting the weak points in all his victims with a ruthless efficiency. We're none the wiser as to why this arch manipulator failed to put in the fix and make a getaway though.
Two years on from this production's initial run, director Keith Warner has stuck to his guns in this austere revival, despite 2017's audiences being somewhat ill-disposed to many of his artistic decisions. That said, it's good to see the Royal Opera House showing faith in a production that has much integrity about it, even if the crowdpleasing element suffers as a result. There is, after all, plenty of pantos in London just now should that be your thing.
Photo Catherine Ashmore