★★★½☆ Musical standards aid Kaufmann’s debut, if production raises questions.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
June 21, 2017

There’s no denying that Jonas Kaufmann’s much anticipated role debut as Otello is the draw card for the Royal Opera’s first new production of Verdi and Boito’s masterpiece in 30 years. As ever, the German tenor proved an intelligent, thoughtful actor, backed up by an intense Iago in Marco Vratogna and a Desdemona in Maria Agresta who grew in vocal stature as the night went on. Antonio Pappano proved himself once again the most insightful of Verdi conductors and musical standards were sky-high, so I’ll admit to some surprise that Keith Warner’s good looking and emotionally clear – if psychologically fuzzy – staging attracted the odd boo on opening night.

Jonas Kaufmann and Maria Agresta in Otello. All photos © Catherine Ashmore

Kaspar Glarner’s handsome costumes place us firmly in the early 17th century, while Boris Kudlička’s smoothly flowing sets provide a series of claustrophobic boxes that tease with hints of the ‘Moorish’ seraglio behind the Western facade while oozing chiaroscuro thanks to Bruno Poet’s potently atmospheric lighting. And while the final crime scene might be a classy hotel bedroom anywhere around the Mediterranean today, there is little (one would have thought) to offend the sensibilities of the operatic neocon. So why the still small voice of dissent? With Warner’s approach to the drama nine parts traditional to one part concept, perhaps the not quite lone barracker needs to, as they say, get a life.

However, there is a problem here. Warner’s Cyprus is a melting pot for East and West. Its general inhabitants espouse the latter with its grey, imposing solidities and certainties. Otello, on the other hand, for all his ‘civilised’ outward show, appears susceptible to the tug of the East, an undertow always threatening to pull him back into dangerous ways. The idea that the killer of Act IV has regressed to a repressed but ever-present ‘Moorish’ state is a tricky one at the best of times, and especially in the current political climate. It may lurk at the heart of Shakespeare’s play, but given the multifaceted nature of the work, it’s surprising to see Warner go down this awkward and naïve rabbit hole. Of course, there’s no blackface here, and the naturalistic is offset with a psychological dose of masks and mirrors that seems to say none of us are who we appear to be, but still, this is 2017, radical Islam is a thing, and the harem pants in the final scene feel fatally misjudged.

Jonas Kaufmann in Otello

Where Warner is strongest is in his dramatic clarity, and in Kaufmann and Vratogna he has a pair of fine musical actors at his disposal. Beginning with Iago solus, holding aloft the silver mask of tragedy behind which he will ultimately ensnare Otello, while casting down the handkerchief, gauntlet-like, to bring on the storm is powerfully symbolic. Vratogna, who bears a passing resemblance to the classic Bond villain, goes on to draw a thrillingly visceral portrait of malignity as he spins his web of deceit through a deep engagement with the text, nowhere more compelling than in his borderline creepy recounting of Cassio’s dream. Although not at his most ringing at the very top – and Iago has some ungrateful high notes – he’s nevertheless a fine singer with a strong middle and lower register. His brutal behaviour, especially his instinct for sexual domination apropos his wretched wife, is just part of the infection contracted by Otello bit by bit as the evening goes on.

And what of Kaufmann’s ‘Moor’? His is about the most rational assumption of the role you are likely to see. He and Warner have carefully plotted every twist and turn of Otello’s psychological downfall and portray it through a sequence of physicalisations that on the surface makes complete sense. And yet there’s a sense of abandon missing early on that makes the increasing violence feel uncertain. In Act I, the sense of a touch paper waiting to be lit is missing, and for all Kaufmann’s acting chops there’s a fundamental disconnect that deserves to be addressed. Verdi and Boito provide the cues in the swaggering entrance, the flashes of fire as he arrives on the scene of the brawl, and his later romantic recollections of a warlike youth. Warner might have intervened more forcefully at any of these moments.

Emerging from the body of the adoring crowd rather than from the belly of the rather de trop ship that trucks its way past the back of the stage, Otello appears Lohengrin-like as the hero of the moment, conjured into life by a people that requires his aid. Esultate is a clarion call alerting us to Kaufmann as the new Otello on the block, and he proceeds to demonstrate that he indeed has all the notes required. The voice does, however, currently seem one size too small for the role. He’s excellent in the intimate moments – the duet with Desdemona, Niun mi tema, and especially the gripping monologue Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali – but elsewhere he can become overwhelmed by the sheer heft of the orchestrations. Sì, pel ciel is a notable exception and both men are on fire here, but the curses in particular need a greater vocal mass.

Marco Vratogna in Otello

The pure and peaceful foil to Vratogna’s evil and Kaufmann’s mounting aggression is Maria Agresta’s well-acted and invariably snowy-clad Desdemona – again, rather an awkward nod to the black-white agenda. On opening night, the voice appeared unwieldy early on, occasionally refusing to do what was required of it. However, Agresta has the vocal amplitude to ride the exhilaratingly delivered Act III ensemble and by Act IV the voice had steadied to deliver a radiant Willow Song and poignant Ave Maria. The rest of the cast is never less than acceptable, with a finely acted Roderigo from New Zealand tenor Thomas Atkins, though Frédéric Antoun’s neatly sung Cassio could benefit from being a bit more of a bon vivant. Kai Rüütel’s firm-toned Emilia shines in the final scene but her crucial part in the Act II quartet is masked by an awkwardly placed, opaque Moorish screen.

Saving the best until last, Antonio Pappano’s reading of the score is grand and glorious. Weighty, yet with plenty of momentum, he draws out the orchestrational novelties in Verdi’s intricately constructed music, juxtaposing a Mendelssohnian lightness in the Fire Chorus and the scherzo that underpins Iago’s scene with Cassio, with a Wagnerian gravity in the love duet and chunkier choral scenes. The orchestra, and especially the brilliantly crafted chorus is on very fine form indeed, the shaping of phrases in the big familiar showpieces making you marvel anew at the septuagenarian Verdi’s bracing imagination.

Jonas Kaufmann and Maria Agresta in Otello

With musical standards like this, one might ask, what’s not to like? Kaufmann is not yet the Otello he might become, but he’s always watchable, and Vratogna’s stygian Credo shot through with shafts of light like razorblades is a tour de force. And yet the more one reflects, the more one feels that in these days of ‘white’ Otellos, Warner needs to rethink his hero’s apparent trajectory from pacific Westerner to dangerously violent Eastern killer. After all, Boito and Verdi invite black and white to be interpreted purely as good and evil, and surely that is enough?

Otello is at the Royal Opera House until July 15 and will be screened across Australia from July 28 to August 2.