Falk Struckmann as Iago in Verdi's "Otello."
Taken at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on October 2, 2012 (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )
On Tuesday night, October 16, the Metropolitan Opera presented its third Otello of the 2012-13 season. Johan Botha, originally scheduled to sing the title role but cancelled his second straight performance after falling ill prior to the opening night of the production. In his place was Avgust Amonov, who set out to take on one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire without ample rehearsal time.
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This production represents the first time in four years that the Met presents Giuseppe Verdi's final tragic masterpiece and it is a shame current Elijah Moshinsky's production does not get more consistent exposure. The sets for all the acts are all in the traditional mold, but never imposing or distracting in any way. In fact, they are constructed in such a way that the viewer's attention is automatically directed to the quadrangular area in the center. The final two acts have potent paintings as backdrops that highlight the tragedy unfolding on stage. Act 2 might be the most impressive of all as it depicts both the interior and exterior of Otello's palace. Downstage we see the warrior's study while behind a set of columns which past it leads us to outside into a garden. The blue backdrop initially gives the viewer the feeling that we are looking out into the vast ocean.
The lighting in this production is equally rewarding. After the night of Act 1, the audience was wowed by the brightness emanating from the stage as the curtains rose on Act 2. However, as the act progressed and Jago's poison began consuming Otello into dark thoughts, the lighting dimmed almost without notice. It was subtle but psychologically effective. In Act 3 the lighting dimmed to focus on Otello as he sang his famous Dio Mi Potevi Scagliar to emphasize the privacy of the moment we are enduring. It returned to normalcy when Jago (Iago in Shakespeare, but Jago in the Score) burst into the room to announce Cassio's entrance. The lights took on a similar design during the pezzo concertato and turned back up as Otello burst onto the scene to order everyone out.
Stage director David Kneuss made the production feel fresh and new with some perceptive directions. The chorus danced and clapped to Jago's drinking song to add energy and liveliness to the set piece. As Cassio's inebriated state grew, the chorus danced in his direction like possessed figures in a surreal moment. It seemed that the audience was experiencing the altered perception of Cassio amid such a realistic drama; a winning decision. In Act 2, he had Otello study his maps as Jago tried to lure him into the trap. It added subtle tension between the two and made Otello initially come off as more resistant to Jago's suggestions. The only moment where Kneuss' direction did not entirely convince me was during the opera's final scene in which Otello goes to kill Desdemona. In this production he is about to kill her but then realizes the wedding dress on her. As the famous kiss motif resounds, he picks up the dress and brings it close to him, a moment of nostalgia for the beautiful moments he had with her. The moment was engaging and genuine, but Otello's decision to throw the dress away and then kiss her took away the authenticity and intimacy of the kiss. The death scene was also a tad bit unbelievable as Desdemona made no motions to get off the bed as her husband prepared to kill her. These could be attributed to Amonov's lack of rehearsal time, but they were nonetheless unconvincing.
The role of Otello is notorious for its demands on the tenor. Otello's range goes all the way up to a high B on a couple of instances and the tenor must be prepared to go from a soft passage and explode into the full resonance of his voice. The orchestra is extremely heavy in this work and forces the tenor to utilize his full resources to ring over it at a number of occasions. More importantly, the role requires a first rate actor to express the trials and tribulations of the moor as he unravels throughout. Amonov had no rehearsal time and it could explain how uncomfortable he seemed at times during this performance both vocally and as an actor. His voice has the hard-edged timbre, but it is not the most potent and sounded insecure during many sections. During the Vengenace Duet that ends act 2, baritone Falk Struckmann was purposely covering him with his own monstrous voice. When he ran in to sing Abasso le Spade in Act 1, his voice sounded small after hearing the punctuating chord right before his entrance. During the second Act scene in which Jago warns him about the green-eyed monster known as jealousy, Otello has an extensive passage that rises to a high B on the words "amor e gelosia van dan dispersi insieme." Amonov struggled when he had to go up to the B and the result was an unpleasant howl of sorts. Throughout the first two acts, his voice never really had the explosiveness or fury that Otello requires and it made it hard to identify with his anguish. He did have a highlight during the famous Gia della notte densa love duet and sang with a warm and fluid legato that many tenors singing this role fail to accomplish. Act 3 and 4 were also strong points for the tenor. The explosiveness finally arrived when he demands "Il Fazoletto" for a third time from his wife. As he goes into delirium at the end of the third act, he once again exhibited the same volatility as he called for the handkerchief again. Both moments were shocking in their execution and truly brought energy to Amonov's mild performance. His Dio Mi Potevi was his best moment of the entire night as he allowed his lyricism to dominate and culminated in a gorgeous pianissimo high G on the words "L'anima aqueto." He had an equally inspiring dimineundo on a high G in the final monologue Niun mi Tema on the word "Gloria." The particular psychological insight highlighted the fading life and triumphs of the broken-heartened hero.
Amonov's acting was not at the level of some of his greatest vocal moments however as he spent a great deal of performance with a stolid expression on his face that made it hard to identify with him. He was not particularly responsive to Jago throughout the Act 2 scene that portrays his unraveling. During the Act 3 duet with Desdemona he would awkwardly rush at her with his hands raised as if to hit her. The effect was jarring and clumsy, but likely a result of no rehearsal time. As aforementioned, the final act's murder scene was ineffectively portrayed by Amonov. He had some strong moments including his connection with Renee Fleming during the love duet. Despite some shortcomings, Amonov's performance was not a disappointment considering the circumstances, but hardly able to truly capture the anguish and torment of this iconic character.
When he originally wrote the opera, Verdi considered calling it Jago after the villain who dominates and controls much of the action in the work. Falk Struckmann's Jago dominated the performance with a revelatory interpretation of opera's most hateful villain. His voice is massive in its volume and he has the rough timbre that suits the character's devilish nature. His drinking song was executed with bravura as he threw off the high A and coloratura lines with aplomb. His Act 2 Credo was magnificent and a moment that elicited thunderous applause after he sustained the concluding Hi F over the bombastic orchestra. His calculated destruction of Otello in the same act was executed with suave vocal lines, particularly as he talked about the jealousy. His delivery of the lines "E un'idra fosca, livida, cieca" (It is a blind and livid monster) had such a dry almost decayed sound that it made the moment chilling. As he ripped the handkerchief from his wife Emilia we saw the demon start to come out and as she left the room with Desdemona in the same scene he delivered the line "Ti giova tacer, intendi? (You better be quiet)" almost as if shouting at her. These intense instances highlighted his darker side which he managed to hold in check throughout the work. He seemed to struggle somewhat during his aria Era La Notte and his voice was raspy during the sotto voce parlate sections that are mainly in the baritone's upper range. His third act was even better with a tour de force moment at the end of the act in which he hovered over the unconscious moor and declares that his poison has worked and that he has effectively won. His voice was at its most potent and virile in these moments and was an effective punctuation to a stellar performance.
Renee Fleming had a solid performance as Desdemona. Her singing was inspired and glorious throughout, but her acting was not as convincing. Her Willow Song and Ave Maria were emotional highlights of the entire evening and were the more genuine moments of tragedy witnessed. She wove strings of beautiful legato throughout these two "arias" and her pianissimo were sublime, particularly in the Ave Maria. Other touchstones for Fleming include the pezzo concertato, and the love duet where she had her finest acting moment. As she came out to greet her husband on the stage she gazed at him lovingly; everything expressed in her eyes only added to the gorgeous cello line playing underneath. She seemed to lack any chemistry with Amonov during the remainder of the performance however as she seemed to have a delayed response to his fury which made it hard to connect with the drama onstage.
Michael Fabiano brought a meaty voice to the role of Cassio in a performance that threatened to steal every scene he was in. His presence on stage was one of confidence and assurance.
Semyon Bychkov was a serviceable conductor, though he could be frustrating at many instances. He gave a rather straight forward account of the work and was rather predictable throughout; the most unpredictable moments are likely the ones he wanted to avoid. After the Otello-Desdemona duet in Act 3, the orchestra erupts in a furious sixteenth note passage that bridges to the Dio Mi Potevi. Bychkov opted for a slower tempo that sapped the energy from the moment, but the fact that it was so muddled didn't help matters. The fanfare before the chorus enters in the same act was another moment where Bychkov seemed unable to keep his players together and the resultant was messy. He rarely generated any buzz or excitement in any of the climaxes; they often felt unnecessarily bombastic. It is true that Otello is an opera with chaotic emotions and uncontrolled rage, but that does not excuse the often sloppy playing from one of the world's greatest orchestras. The battle between Cassio and Rodrigo in Act 1 is brilliantly constructed by Verdi and yet Bychkov was unable to generate a truly cathartic crescendo. Instead, the build was erratic and hardly paid off. The explosion of the chorus in prayer during the opening storm was equally lacking in the orchestral setup. During the love duet, the orchestra was rarely felt after the opening cello duet; it made the sublime moment seem a bit lacking despite the singers' wondrous rendition. Here again he was unable to make any real impression with the kiss motif, which is one of Verdi's most poignant lyrical moments, due to a lack in build to its culmination. Bychkov was stronger in the latter half of the work, particularly in the concertato, but his ending to the work summed up his performance. As Otello dies, Verdi hands the reins to the orchestra to depict the final beats. Bychkov extended this coda far too long; it lasted almost two minutes after Otello was already dead and seemed as if the opera would never end.
Overall, it was hard to truly love this Otello. Everyone involved had brilliant individual moments, but as a whole the performance lacked cohesion and made the tragedy unmoving and empty. To end on a positive note however, it is great to have Verdi's superb score (my personal favorite) back in New York at the world's most renowned opera house.
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