Grumpy Otello

Verdi loved Shakespeare and tried to reflect the psychological depth of his characters in the operas he based on the bard.  You really wouldn’t know that watching the 2008 Salzburg Festival production of Otello.  There’s a lot to like in both production and performance but the emotionally monochromatic performance of the title role by Aleksandrs Antonenko, who can do every mood from fairly grumpy to furious, and the moustache twirling Jago of Carlos Álvarez rather reduce the piece to pathologically jealous nutter with anger management problem kills wife.

1.orgyIt really is a bit of a shame because there are some very good things on this disk.  Stephen Langridge’s production is lively and he uses the chorus and dancers well though some may consider the celebrations in Act 1 a bit over the top.  I don’t think there are any big ideas and it’s a bit heavy on Catholic kitsch but it’s interesting to look at and allows space for the performers to develop their characters.  Marina Poplavskaya as Desdemona and Stephen Costello as Cassio do this very well and if Otello and Jago had been as well realised this would be pretty good.  The singing too is a bit of a mixed bag.  Antonenko is suitably heroic of tone but again only seems to have one gear.  Poplavskaya is sweet toned and engaging, especially in her big Act 4 numbers.  I know some people find her voice “reedy” but it sounds fine to me here.  Nice work from Costello and Álvarez too.  Riccardo Muti gets a thrilling reading of the score from the Wiener Philharmoniker.  This aspect is red blooded Verdi at its best.

2.otello_desdemonaThe video direction, by Peter Schönhoffer is not very good at all.  I think Langridge is going for the “epic” look, as well he might, in the Grosses Festspielhaus but Schönhoffer is almost relentless in his use of close ups.  It doesn’t help that besides only one vocal register and only one dramatic register, Antonenko has only one facial expression; “glower”.  On DVD the picture and Dolby surround sound are excellent and may be even better on Blu-ray.  There’s a ten minute bonus track on the disk but it’s really just a spoken synopsis.  The booklet also has a synopsis as well as a track listing.  Subtitle options are Italian, English, German, French,Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Japanese.

3.chorusDespite it’s considerable strengths there are just too many flaws to make this disk recommendable.  For the record it’s also available as part of a boxed set of all the Verdi operas “Tutto Verdi”.


8 thoughts on “Grumpy Otello

  1. The Met has announced that its new Otello will not have the singer in black make-up–something which I found shocking when I first saw the Opera nearly 40 years ago and have never understood. I know much has been written about what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote a play about a “Moor” and it recent years actors such as Patrick Stewart have performed the play without the minstrel make-up. Is this an American hang-up? I would be most interested in reading what you and your readers think.

    • There’s obviously a long tradition of doing the play and the opera in black face. Think Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier. In this Salzburg recording it’s kind of half assed. It looks more like heavy bronzer than black face but still. My personal opinion is that we are past it. We have black and Asian singers singing all kinds of roles in the opera house. We don’t need slant eyed make-up for Madama Butterfly or black face for Otello, or even Monostatos. It’s no harder to get past that than, say, a character who is singing about a spear while holding an assault rifle.

    • Although to be fair, Patrick Stewart was playing white in a cast of black actors. And you probably wouldn’t find Othello cast with a white actor under any other circumstances these days. Which perhaps suggests the real question is the historical absence of black tenors on the major opera stages.

  2. Pingback: Elegant and subtle Otello | operaramblings

  3. Pingback: Straightforward Otello from the Met | operaramblings

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