I received an e-mail from a friend suggesting that after talking about anticipating the Muti Otello last week I had been remiss in posting anything about it. What’s your problem he asked – or words to that effect. Well as I’ve said in the past if I were a critic I’d be better off working for a weekly or a monthly. Sometimes I just can’t meet deadlines. But here goes.
Last week I wrote
After its summer break-in at Salzburg how will this first collaboration between Muti and the Teatro turn out? Certainly with the change of venue things will be different – the Grosse Festspeilhaus is such a bloody barn that voices can get lost and details in productions swamped by the mere size of the stage and auditorium. Will the more traditional opera house be kinder to the voices? Will the producer have rethought some of his ideas after the unkind reviews? How will Muti handle a chorus and orchestra that are a few steps below the forces he commanded in Salzburg?
Let me answer the last question first. Otello is one of those operas that can be spoken of in terms of tenors or conductors. I have seen or heard Vickers‘ Otello, Domingo’s Otello, Del Monaco’s Otello and MacCracken’s Otello. I’ve also seen or heard Von Karajan’s, Solti’s and Toscanni’s Otello. And on one occassion saw a Vickers-Von Karajan Otello. Ever since it was announced last December there was no mistaking what sort of Otello we were going to get here in Roma. The posters announced it, the press talked about it and frankly when my friend Parsi asked me who was singing I couldn’t remember but I knew who would be conducting. This was going to be Riccardo Muti’s Otello.
And so it was. And it had all of his familiar trademarks – dramatic push and tension as well of moments of incredible translucent beauty. There was no stopping for applause – though several moments cried out for it – nothing was allowed to interfere with Verdi’s music and Boito’s libretto. And on two occasions noisy members of the audience were treated to that glare that makes musicians’ mouths turn dry and brows break out in a cold sweat. The Teatro orchestra responded to what ever magic he holds over his orchestras – pax La Scala – and played to an exceptional level. There were some incredibly beautiful sounds coming out of the pit and the brass had a golden edge to it that was entirely new. Andrea Giorgi’s chorus can always be counted on to do a fine job but in full-throated cry as the opera began gave me chills.
And the singers? I can only believe that the more intimate acoustic of the Teatro made a great deal of difference. Though perhaps not meeting the standards of the Golden Age – that’s my golden age – they worked well within the framework of Muti’s musical vision of Otello. At this stage of his career Aleksandrs Antonenko simply doesn’t have all the voice or the experience that is needed for the part of Otello – these days who does? His Esultate! was slightly underpowered but unlike at Salzburg, if reports are to be believed, he did not run out of steam before Act 4. His is a Slavic voice with the tendency that voice type has to turn slightly steely under pressure and he lacks the stage charisma that a Vickers or Domingo brought to the part.
Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya (Desdemona) is one of those singers that divides opinion – I often wonder if the commenters have been to the same performance. Here she gave a lovely performance, again her’s is a Slavic voice and finally lacks the creamy tones of a Tebaldi or Freni in the part. But it did give her Desdemona an edge: here was no Kewpie doll waiting to be murdered but a proud daughter of La Serinissima. The ultimate test of any Desdemona is the final scene and here the combination of Muti in the pit, Poplavskaya on stage and the staging itself – for the first time all evening possibly – came together to create moments of sadness, tension and heart-stopping drama. Barbara di Castri’s Emilia came into its own at this point, lovingly attending to her mistress, her darker voice underscoring the drama. Huddled barefoot on the floor in front of a single candle Poplavskaya almost mummered the tale of poor mad Barabara in a chilling but beautiful half-voice. Her despairing cry after the departing Emilia was shattering and the Ave Maria sang in a half-whisper ending in a pianissimo Amen as she drifted into troubled sleep.
The most satisfying singing of the evening came from Giovanni Meoni’s Iago. His was a subtle portrayal and he avoid that generalized Verdi baritone sound we get so often today. His Credo was strongly delivered and reeked of an almost Jesuitical cynicism. It was one of those moments that called out for applause but the Maestro was having none of that.
I find it difficult to say anything about Stephen Landgridge’s production as a good deal of the action was not visible from our palco stage left. No doubt when we were able to see what was going on our friends at stage right had the same predicament. He had obviously not restaged with a traditional theatre in mind. George Souglides‘ dull unit set of metal walls and fracturing glass floors had been altered for width but not for depth and much of the upstage action was lost. Emma Ryott’s costumes were fine in a generalized Renaissance style but with little variety in colour – Cyprus was a pretty dreary post if these designers are to be believed. As I mentioned Landgridge did stage the beginning of Act IV beautifully and the ending – Otello crawling towards the body of his dead wife, straining but failing to touch her before he dies, heightened the tragedy. Sadly, from what I could see, nothing in the rest of his direction was as dramatic.
Which brings us back to Maestro Muti – most of the drama for the evening was being generated in the pit and that may be the way he wanted it. And we knew from the beginning that this was going to be a Muti Otello.
Production photos for the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma by
19 dicembre – San Dario di Nicea