Friday, September 25, 2015

A Lackluster Season Opener

Verdi’s Otello
Met Season Opening Gala 2015
September 21, 2015

Desdemona puts up a fight against all odds.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
It was an unusual opening night. For a start there were no protesters picketing the Met (unlike the last couple of years). Then, the glamour level was relatively unimaginative. I was unable to spot any particularly spectacular gown or even a tiara, which is usually part of the fun at the gala. But more importantly the lack of fireworks and innovative ideas permeated the evening’s performance of Verdi’s Otello. While I am not crazy about this opera per se, I was looking forward to the start of the new season and was ready to be swept away by some clever and thought-provoking interpretation. Being a huge fan of two of the lead singers (Yoncheva and Lučić), I had pretty high expectations for this new production.

Otello emerges victorious.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The opening was sensational: animations of a dark and stormy sea were projected onto a translucent scrim that covered the whole stage, producing an exciting and almost terrifying counterpoint to Verdi’s tempestuous score. This is one of my favorite passages in the opera that I have always found gripping from the very first notes. In Otello, Verdi dispenses with an overture of any kind and he thrusts the audience, in medias res, straight into what is actually Act II of his Shakespearean source material. As the scrim lifted to reveal the chorus watching Otello’s vessel brave the tempest, the stormy projections coupled with stroboscopic lightning and an ominous fog continued until Otello emerged victorious and made his way through the crowd. These effects worked so well that I hoped director Bartlett Sher would continue to employ the talents of the lighting design team throughout the opera, but sadly this was not the case.

Drink, drink, drink with me!
Photo credit: Ken Howard
It turned out to be a very minimalist production, with sets comprised essentially of transparent double walls with some vaguely nineteenth-century faux-neo-classical architectural features that were pushed around in different formations, creating a public square, a palace interior, a maze of hallways and so on. These walls allowed for fluid scene changes and some cool effects such as showing characters lurking behind them (Otello spying on Cassio), towering from their tops (Iago orchestrating the Cassio-Desdemona encounter) or being trapped inside them (Otello as a defeated leone (lion) at the end of Act III). The use of lighting design was very minimal with the plastic walls changing color at some crucial moments (red, when Otello’s demise is made clear) and some constellation appearing in the sky at the end. Otherwise, however, the sets were dark and empty (aside from some extremely basic bedroom furniture in the final act) and really did not give the eye much to work with nor their predominant negative dark space was put to any good use.

A dark and stormy Otello.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
For most of the first couple of acts, an ominous projection of an enormous sea continued to roll its tempestuous waves in the background over, above and beyond the walls. The subtle impression was that of being on a small island buffeted by the wind and the ever-changing sea. The opening of Act III brought this reading home. While the orchestra intoned the first passages of the act, the scrim was back and on it we saw projected an animation of similar neo-classical palace walls slowly dissolve under the influence of the same stormy sea, as though they were made of sand. The world our Otello inhabits is a tenuous one and is being dissolved by dark forces. While the concept behind the walls was interesting, it was really not enough to carry the show and all-in-all felt incomplete, almost as if the production had run out of money in the middle of the process.

Did the stark simplicity of the production have something to do with the infamous negotiations with the Met unions? Interestingly, in a recent interview Mr. Gelb boasted of having cut corners right down to the buttons on the costumes in order to bring this new production in under budget. Whatever the reason, the costumes were by no means exciting or interesting. The idea was to move the action to the time the opera was composed, so late 1800s. This meant generic nineteenth-century garb with men in stark military suits and women in puffy gowns, with the only touch of color being Desdemona’s red dress in the third act. This blandness coupled with the dark and bare sets did not really help to keep the visuals engaging or add much to the overall interpretation. There was some fuss in the press about this Otello not wearing the traditional blackface make-up but to me that was the least of the issues. 

Iago manipulates Cassio.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
My favorite Verdian baritone Željko Lučić stole the show as Iago. His legato phrasings and his Italian articulation were as impressive as ever and he rendered the character with a diabolical mellifluousness that was hypnotizing and highly seductive. Lučić’s sound is handsome and melodic yet very manly and here displayed a spectrum of expressivity that truly blew me away. Most striking was how the Serbian baritone’s singing perfectly rendered the duality between the true Iago (violent, ambitious, manipulative) and the fake Iago (supportive, sensitive, loyal). The range of characterization displayed by Lučić in this role was most impressive and truly made him the undisputed star of the evening.

Otello succumbs to Iago.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
I also find the character of the villain the most complex and nuanced as rendered in this opera as he is ultimately its evil propelling force. Verdi and his librettist Boito truly gave Iago some spectacular lines and music – think of the chilling and terrifying manifesto Credo in un Dio crudel, where Iago fully acknowledges and embraces his deviousness as ingrained in being human, mocking the righteous man as un istrion beffardo (a mocking actor) while his truth is sono scellerato perche’ son uomo / e sento il fango originario in me (I am a wretch because I am a man, / and I feel within me the primeval slime.)  

Another favorite singer of ours, the rising Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva did not deceive and indeed rose to the challenge of being the leading lady on the Met’s opening night. Who knew that subbing for Kurzak in Rigoletto two years ago would have led her here so quickly and so brilliantly? Yoncheva embodied the most lyrical and unblemished Desdemona. Her sound is just gorgeously plush and unbelievably pure and her dramatic acting convincing. Every single note uttered by Yoncheva exuded an accurate and emotionally charged interpretation: she was the young bride reminiscing how she fell in love; the earnest friend advocating on Cassio’s behalf; the confused and wronged victim when Otello unleashes his jealous rage; and finally, tragically aware of her imminent death, the pious and strong woman accepting her fate when her husband murders her.

Desdemona shines, Otello lacks luster.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello was an expected disappointment. I’ve heard him before in Norma and Carmen and was never a fan of his. Though technically accurate and powerful enough, Antonenko’s voice just lacks warmth, it’s not particularly handsome or full and I find it just plain unpleasant to the ear in the higher register, when it sounds borderline strident. Acting-wise his Otello did not have much nuance and his maximum expression of desperation was often to just throw himself on the ground and lay there while other singers fussed around him. Probably the fault of Sher and his empty sets but still it was odd to watch. In the last act, Antonenko worked better, probably because Otello’s singing there is mostly in the lower register and there was some actual furniture around for him to work with. Beyond poor production choices, however, when the tenor in the title role is so disappointing the perception of the whole opera is just irreparably tainted.

An ominous sky over a foreboding sea.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The Met orchestra sounded amazing under the baton of young and energetic conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Rarely I have felt the score to be the real protagonist of an opera as tonight. My favorite moments of the performance (after Lučić) were several purely orchestral passages that really emphasized narrative shifts. Notwithstanding some peaks of musical excellence, though, all-in-all this was an underwhelming opening night that left me lukewarm. Here’s hoping that the season can only improve from here on in.

– Lei & Lui

Otello forces his love into submission.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

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