Otello; dramma lirico in four acts, music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, after the play by William Shakespeare, conductor Antonio Pappano, director Keith Warner, Royal Opera, 10th July 2017, reviewed by Leslie Jones
As Roberta Montemorra Marvin notes in the official programme (page 21), certain critics believe “that [in Otello] Boito and Verdi even improved upon Shakespeare’s original”. A case can certainly be made for this contention by comparing the opening scene of the play with that of the opera. In Shakespeare’s Othello, it is Venice, at night. Roderigo, urged on by Iago, informs Brabantio that his daughter Desdemona has eloped. In Otello, however, as Professor Matthew Dimmock reminds us (programme, page 12) the action is fast-forwarded. Otello (Jonas Kaufmann) arrives in Cyprus after the tempest in which the Turkish fleet is fortuitously destroyed. Lighting designer Bruno Poet deserves especial credit for the visual effects during the storm. When we first see Desdemona, likewise, she is strikingly posed against a now peaceful night sky.
By omitting most of act one of Shakespeare’s play (although some of its content is referenced retrospectively), Verdi and Boito achieved an undeniably dramatic opening scene. The storm and the subsequent drunken riot seem like a portent of Otello’s imminent mental disintegration. With his victory over the Turks, his military career has reached its apogee. He has a beautiful and adoring wife. Yet he senses that his happiness cannot endure. And in a touchingly nostalgic duet, commencing with Mio superbo guerrier (sung exquisitely by Maria Agresta (Desdemona)), they fondly recall their courtship and why they fell in love. She loved him for the dangers he had passed, and he loved her for pitying them. “Venga la morte!” (“Let death come now”), Otello presciently proclaims.
The elision of Shakespeare’s first act comes at a price. For what is it that drives Iago to exploit almost every character’s weakness? Shakespeare suggests a mixture of motives – sexual jealousy, thwarted ambition and something ineffable but akin to Nietzsche’s will to power. Verdi and Boito, however, skate over this issue with empty verbiage. Iago tells us that his is a cruel God and that he is evil because human. Heaven, he contends, is make believe and virtue does not exist. Yet in truth, Iago plays not only upon his compeer’s weaknesses, such as Cassio’s fondness for drink but also on their virtues, notably Desdemona’s loyalty and generosity of spirit.
Baritone Marco Vratogna (Iago) has a remarkable vocal range and his voice has a rythmical quality that is complemented by arresting body language. He arguably upstages Kaufmann. But then, as Andrew Dickson remarks (programme, page 47) many actors have found the part of Othello “ponderous and static, preferring to set their sights on the more satisfyingly dynamic and malevolent Iago”. Similar reservations may constrain those who undertake this most demanding of operatic roles, Otello.
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR