Many an opera administrator has lost sleep over Otello; with productions planned years in advance and the demands of the leading role, the chance of a star tenor being in the right condition at the right time requires a precise alignment of the planets. Having scheduled superstar Jonas Kaufmann’s debut in the role, the subsequent rumblings of vocal difficulties and a string of cancellations must have had the Covent Garden staff on tenterhooks and loosened a few bowels as opening night loomed.
Ironically, it would be the Iago who dropped out. The replacement Marco Vratogna sings well with the appropriate Italianate vocal colour, his Credo is thrillingly delivered with Pappano taking care to not overwhelm him, and it’s good to have a singer in their prime after so many barking veterans. As for vocal colour, ditto for Maria Agresta’s Desdemona – her lovely plush sound avoiding the pallid virginal cliche. Pitting two Italianate voices against Kaufmann’s unidiomatic sound works dramatically, pointing up his outsider status as it did for Vickers and Vinay.
As for Kaufmann, his innate musicality produces many subtle line readings and moments of vulnerability but one becomes aware of him keeping something in reserve – and there’s the rub; a crippling lack of intensity and dramatic specificity. Keith Warner seems to have let the singers do their own thing instead of directing them with a firm dramaturgical hand. Vratogna resorts to conventional eye-rolling and pantomime villainy, Agresta could have made so much more of Desdemona’s bewildered plight. Kaufmann plays the role at arm’s length and comes across as an ill-tempered Werther rather than the wounded lion of Venice.
The design is in the current mode of modern/period mash-up with some regietheater clichés and unfortunate costume choices. By no means a bad performance, it should have been something special. It is unfortunate that a misfire is preserved for posterity. Kaufmann was born for the role and will hopefully give us a supreme rendition when he is fit enough to let rip.