Review: OTELLO, Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House revives its 2017 production and triumphs with a clear-sighted telling of a tricky tragic tale

By: Jul. 13, 2022
Review: OTELLO, Royal Opera House
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Review: OTELLO, Royal Opera House "Why does he do it?" The question always sits there at the end of Othello (in Shakespeare's English) or Otello (in Verdi's Italian). In fact, it's the same question posed twice, as it applies as much to Iago's disgraceful plan to bring down his commanding officer as it does to Othello's tragic descent into murder. It is to the immense credit of Keith Warner's production (this revival of his 2017 show is directed by Isabelle Kettle) that one leaves with clearer, or, at least, more plausible, answers to those timeless enquiries.

We open on an enormous storm, the first glimpse of splendid work from the chorus and Iago, as ever a man apart, confiding his diabolical plot to us with its thin vindication of revenge for his rival, Cassio's, promotion. Christopher Maltman has just the right slimy charisma (something we've become very used to in 21st century politics) and his eyes dart about knowing that men like him always thrive in chaos. Verdi gives him bits and pieces to sing - and, my oh my, does Maltman sing well - but we're left in no doubt that this is an amoral opportunist, low in cunning, lower still in ruthlessness.

Amidst this lashing of Cyprus (Boris Kudlička's set is bleak, but always on the move and watchable - a bit like Iago), Otello arrives and quells both the tumult in the heavens and on the earth with sheer force of personality allied to moral authority. Russell Thomas - incredible as it may be, even in 2022, it is necessary to point out that he is a black singer - brings the required gravitas (and, as it turns out, much more) through both his presence and his voice, never straining, but ready to dissolve from decency to destruction.

We wait a long time before hearing Hrachuhi Bassénz sing, but it's well worth the wait. She brings the tricky combination of technical mastery allied to her character's naive fragility to tell the story of a woman who keeps making bad choices about how to arrest the madness engulfing her and rescue herself from the mortal danger she sees far too late.

Bassénz is a compelling presence, never dominating in this most testosterone-fuelled environment, but she takes our eyes and ears with her whenever she is in sight. Her scenes with Emilia (Monika-Evelin Liiv, beautifully understated) are heartbreaking as she realises, and accepts, her fate in a world of Daz-white bed linen that she still can't see as ill-judged.

Daniele Rustioni ensures that the music is a full character (as it should be in opera) driving the narrative and manipulating our emotions, revealing the disintegration of psychologies as Iago's poison seeps through the court. Verdi's score, written at 73 years of age in 1887, sounds as fresh as if it were composed by a 23 year old last week - another sign of the relevance of the work.

Speaking of Otello in the programme, Russell Thomas, claims "I think my job is to make people feel sorry for him". A cold-blooded murderer? Sorry for him? Not me guv."

And yet we do - Thomas succeeds. We see this black man, the Moor in a Caucasian world (none more so than when the Venetians visit like a deputation of angels, gleaming white of course, as Muhammad Ali was wont to point out), his self-esteem undermined at every turn by his otherness, that he will hear whispered, implied, shown day after day, hour after hour. Even Desdemona loves him in part for his record of overcoming adversity - she doesn't mean it, but she's patting him on the head, patronising a great man by othering his experience.

Are we surprised that Iago could chip away at that thin carapace of self-legitimacy, shattering it with his seeding of jealousy? Are we surprised that the white man, embracing his towering entitlement, turned on the only black man in his world and brought him down? Do we not see this today, played out on social media, that engine of vindictiveness?

So, if 'sorry' might not be the precise emotion Thomas provoked in me for his Otello, its close cousin, empathy, certainly was. He could have risen above it, but how often can you go to that well? He should never have exacted the price poor Desdemona pays, but isn't death the fighting man's currency? Where were his friends and superiors when he needed them most - because they knew all right?

Never have I left a production of Othello with a clearer set of answers as to why Othello and Iago do the things they do. And I'm grateful for that.

Otello is at the Royal Opera House until 24 July

Photo Credit: Clive Barda


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