Saturday, 1 July 2017

Opera Nights At The Cinema: Verdi's Otello with Kaufmann

I love Verdi's "Otello" and was not going to miss this week's live broadcast with German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the lead role. I enjoy both Kaufmann's singing and acting. He has emerged as one of the greats. Although doubtless somebody will disagree.

Verdi's opera is based on Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello" in which a Moorish general (Otello), who serves the Venetians, is maliciously played upon by his aide (Iago) and led to believe that his new, young, Venetian wife (Desdemona) is unfaithful.
Iago is the driver - his jealousy, envy and pathological psychology moving him to ruin and warp everything around him. Othello is the subject, the man played upon, whose passions are worked and driven so that all that follows is tragedy. And Desdemona's constant good faith pushes her relentlessly towards her fate. This drama has always summed up tragedy to me - a collision of people's psychology and the turns of fate which explode into a terrible outcome - and we the audience can see it coming.

Verdi's opera has the drama and psychology of the original play together with beautiful music and a vocally challenging lead role in Otello. Domingo has been one of the great Otellos. I never managed to see him singing it live. But this week I got to see the broadcast of Kaufmann's debut in the role. Of course it seals him into it. I was relieved that he was not "blacked up". (School age trauma caused by my class being taken to see the film of Sir Laurence Olivier's awful performance as Shakespeare's Othello, whom I expected to drop on one knee and sing a rousing chorus of "Mammy" by way of encore.)

This production's sets involve partial walls (they appear as towering, dark, wooden walls or screens) which move around to change the space. As such the set has been described as minimalist. But I don't think it is. I can cope with minimalist. If a production and music is wonderful who needs a box of tricks?  But here it seems as if movements are made sometimes because they can. For instance why does Desdemona appear to rise up from the ground in one scene? As does the Herald announcing the arrival of the Venetian delegation? Throughout, performers have been walking on and off as usual, so why are these two entrances singled out as "magical"? No good dramatic reason that I could see.
And there are glaring additions to the design's "minimalism". A huge statue of the Venetian Lion is hauled on by the visiting delegation and in the final scene it re-appears, "broken". OK, I'm not a fan of heavy symbolism if it is not handled well but poke it into a relatively severe set and it's impact is disproportionate.

Never mind, I bicker ... because I can. The singing and acting of all the main roles is wonderful: Kaufmann (Otello); Maria Agresta (his wife Desdemona) and Marco Vratogna (Iago). It's a moving opera and a moving evening which we both did enjoy very much. And as usual The Old Man particularly looked forward to his interval ice cream.

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