José Cura as the title role and Thomas Hampson as Iago in Verdi's "Otello."
Taken during the March 11, 2013 performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
The Metropolitan Opera has repeatedly stated that the 2012-13 is the season that the company has chosen to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the legendary composer Giuseppe Verdi. Throughout the year, the Met has showcased a number of winning performances of the great composer's works, including exemplary representations of "Aida," Trovatore," and "Rigoletto" (This critic has not seen the new "Traviata" thus far and will pass comment until after the performance this Monday.). However, no celebration has been greater than the "Otello" performed on Friday, March 15. The cast, which featured Jose Cura in the title role, Thomas Hampson as Iago, Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona, and Alexey Dolgov as Cassio, proved why so many pundits call "Otello" the greatest Italian opera and why this critic feels it is the most compelling and gripping in the entire operatic canon.
Jose Cura's Otello is one of consummate complexity. His gray hairs and weariness denote a man exiting his prime and entering a time in which his masculinity starts to erode slowly. After his "Abbasso Le Spade," he held his head as if the stress of the preceding chaos had tired him tremendously. This Otello's only major solace is the love of his faithful Desdemona. While most tenors accept the infidelity by the end of Act 2, Cura's Otello seems to doubt her guilt the entire time. The result is that one never feels the tragedy as inevitable; there remains a gripping and riveting hope that he might actually turn away from that path. When Desdemona comes on stage to apologize during the Act 3 duet "Dio ti giocondi," most tenors react with sarcasm to her call for peace; Cura showed a true willingness to forgive her instead. At the end of the brief passage, he hugged her with all his might and one could see his inner mind begging that she be honest. Cura's Otello is never violent with Desdemona either. As she pleads for Cassio before the Act 2 quartet, Cura gently took Stoyanova's hand in his and calmly denied her wish. Even when she insisted, he didn't break into a violent jolt. He slammed the chair, but even that slight eruption guilted him a bit and he walked away from her full of shame. He never slapped her during the Act 3 concertato and even in the final act he seemed undecided on whether to kill her or not. As she slept, he took her dress and brought it near to him in an embrace. Then he laid it across the bed and passed his hand across it lovingly. The most telling moment of this performance was after killing Desdemona. While most Otellos turn their backs on the dying woman as she professes her final words, Cura moved toward her and even sat beside her, the guilt written all over his face. He took a few seconds to enunciate the "O mentitrice, io l'uccisi" that follows. During the final "Niun Mi Tema," he lay by her bedside, shaking her violently to get up, as if he still hadn't accepted his actions. During the famous "Baccio" motif, he kissed her repeatedly, the act of a man desperately clinging to the only hope he had in his old age and the one that he himself wrongfully destroyed.
Another fascinating aspect of Cura's performance was the famous fury that has come to define the character. Cura's moor kept the anger in check throughout and part of his major conflict was to maintain a sense of composure and restraint. One could sense that he might explode at any moment, but his ability to control the rage made the explosive moments all the more compelling and surprising. As Iago goaded him on during the second act, Cura walked about attempting to keep calm, an intense tension in every one of his movements. He grabbed his sword and threatened Iago with it, but then set it aside quickly. After singing the "Ora e per sempre addio," he ran at Hampson and threw him down on the table and started to choke him violently. After a bit he let go, another realization of his shameful action. During the Act 3 duet with Desdemona, Cura maintained cordial treatment with her until the end when he issued the famous "Quella vil cortigiana." He took her in his arms and embraced her, but then slowly slid her arms down her chest and to her thighs with disgust pouring out his face; one could almost feel like he was about to rape her in that instance. It made for a riveting transition to the lamenting "Dio! Mi Potevi." The concertato also offered an interesting perspective on the character's frustrations and fury. As he read the document that would strip him of his power, a strong indignation swept over his visage. As he handed the paper to his successor, Cassio, he stretched out his hand as if to pass it to him. As Cassio reached out for it, Cura let it fall out of his hand purposely, a strong sign of disrespect. As aforementioned, he didn't hit Desdemona in this scene; instead he shouted at her and vehemently pointed to the ground, as a raged owner would do to his dog. During the ensuing scene he rushed all the way upstage and hid himself from view, almost ashamed of being seen; he hid so well that it took this writer a few moments to spot him. The moment emphasized the feeling of the outsider and Otello's current psychological state; with his wife and now his power take away, what does he really have left?
Cura's singing fused gloriously with his acting. While the role of Otello is known for the strength and power it requires, Verdi's writing for the tenor is mainly piano throughout. Cura observed this marking continuously, creating a greater sense of tension and making his forte outbursts shocking and powerful. The top notes were all there with no sign of discomfort or difficulty; from a technical standpoint, this guy was truly a man in complete command. He sang elegantly when the music called for it; his rendition of the opening "Già nella notte densa" featured a delicate legato. His most powerful moment, however, came in the final "Niun Mi Tema." As he watched over the dead corpse, he sang so gently that his eruption at the first "Desdemona" was heart wrenching; he almost seemed to be desperately trying to bring her to life. He followed that one with a hushed repetition of her name, an acceptance of her death. The ensuing "Ah! Morta!" was an anguished cry of desperation and it almost felt as if Cura was actually weeping hysterically on stage.
Thomas Hampson was a terrific adversary as Iago. His voice projected voluminously over the orchestra and he enunciated every word with such directness and precision; it emphasized the calculating nature of Iago. Hampson's gray hairs seemed to add a nice parallel to Cura's Otello visually: like the Moor he is exiting his prime years. However unlike Otello, he has nothing to show for it. This impotency translated in all of his actions. He glared at a young child during the drinking song and a conniving smile grew on his face as he watched Otello suffer in Act 2. He sang the famous "Credo" with a sharp bite throughout; the hatred that emanated from every phrase was chilling and enervating at the same time. His virtuosity was emphasized during the Act 3 Trio "Questa è una ragna dove il tuo cuor" as Hampson sang the quick phrases faster than this writer has ever heard them sung without any sign of difficulty or struggle. During the final duet "Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!" he matched Cura and the orchestra's power phrase for phrase. The crowning moment of his performance was the end of Act 3 as he stood over the fallen Otello. He uttered the phrases "Ecco il Leon" with a contemptuous snarl that made one feel that he was actually going to crush Cura with his foot. Instead he dropped the handkerchief on him as if he were depositing garbage.
Krassimira Stoyanova rounded out the trio with a defining Desdemona. A common criticism of the role is that she seems naïve of her husband's problems. However, Stoyanova's is always looking to alleviate his concerns. As she walked on stage for the Act 1 duet she rushed over to relieve the tired man. As the cello quartet played the glorious opening phrases, she caressed his face and he returned the action with equal tenderness; their connection in this moment created a soulful atmosphere of bliss. As she left after the Act 2 duet, she was filled with remorse and pain; you could tell that she felt something was off. While most sopranos arrive in Act 3 completely innocent and unknowing, Stoyanova brought the same sense of foreboding as she came to make amends with her husband. As the night wore on, it seemed that this Desdemona was slowly losing her will to live and by the time the famous Act 4 scene came around, the arc was complete. The Willow Song is often called the opera's mad scene, but Stoyanova's performance was of a woman clinging to life despite slowly accepting that her end is near. Vocally Stoyanova started the song full voiced, almost a cry of desperation. Every time the "Salce" reprise returned, she sang it quieter and quieter, the life slowly slipping away. Her eruption "Emilia addio" at the end of the song not only gave the passage a structural congruity, but was also cathartic and heart-breaking. The Ave Maria was sung piano throughout, and seemed to follow a similar arc as the Salce with the final A flat sounding ethereal. The singing throughout the rest of the performance showcased the "angelic" quality that Verdi hoped to gain from the role.
Alexey Dolgov was an ideal Cassio; his lyric voice and dashing boyish looks were the ideal counterpoint for the gray-haired Otello. Cassio sings two major passages throughout the work: one during the trio in Act 3 while he admires the handkerchief and another while he admires Desdemona's beauty prior to the drinking song in Act 1. Both of these arching passages were sung with delicacy and grace.
Conductor Alain Altinoglu was fascinating at the podium. He preferred faster tempi and this propulsion added an extra layer of intensity to the drama. His prelude to Act 4 was a true gem as the winds seemed to intertwine melancholically with a sense of dread. He led a beautiful love duet that fluctuated in its tempi, making the passage feel like a dreamy journey with ebbs and flows; it accentuated the varying sections while also maintaining a sense of unity. The concertato represented a tremendous emotional release with Altinoglu slowly building up the chorus and orchestra to a tumultuous climax that almost paralleled wonderfully with the opera's opening storm, an equally cataclysmic moment in the performance. While most composers opt to stop the music after the "Ave Maria" to let the soprano win her applause, Altinoglu opted to let the music continue. As the violins died out at the end of the prayer, the basses came in with a slight accent that jolted the audience out of the heavenly ambiance and back into the torrid tragedy.
Back when this critic reviewed the first cast for the opera, there were ample comments of Elijah Moshinsky's elegant production (Read about it here). Nothing has really changed except for the aforementioned performers and their insight, but it was clear that stage director David Kneuss (who also directed the first run) allowed a lot of freedom this time around and reaped tremendous rewards dramatically. It is also essential to add that this cast would have been ideal to see on the silver screen as part of Met's Live in HD series.
The performance showcased the ideal "Otello;" it was filled with great singing, wondrous acting, and plenty of dramatic insight and power that was riveting and revelatory. As part of the 200-year celebration of Verdi's birthday, this performance of the venerable masterpiece was a glorious present to the celebrated composer.