Wednesday, 12 Dec 2018

Give more power to his wife: "Otello" as a domestic drama

Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros as an insane husband in Verdi's Omello production by Amelie Niermeyer at the Bavarian State Opera. (Wilfried Hosl)

The Bavarian State Opera is now one of the world's leading music directors, with a moving musical director, Kirill Petrenko, renowned for his stimulating and intriguing productions. The first new production of the season, "Otello" by Verdi, was broadcast live Sunday around the world. "Otello" is an inflamed Italian opera about a passionate man. Amelie Niermeyer, the director, has tried to make this opera a nuanced picture of the decay of a wedding. It worked somehow.

It is common in many opera circles to demonize interpretive staging – the dreaded "Regietheater" or "Eurotrash" – and to try to ignore it to focus entirely on the music. Certainly, music was the main attraction of this "Otello" on paper. Jonas Kaufmann, the most sensitive German tenor, was returning for a second essay in one of the most difficult parts of the tenor repertoire, while Petrenko, who will take over the Berlin Philharmonic in August, was in the pit. Add to this soprano Anja Harteros, known for her vocal beauty, and the wonderful Canadian baritone Gerald Finley. The result is more and more rare in American opera: a sold-out house. Yet it was Niermeyer's staging, though extremely problematic at times, that played the most important role in making the evening so stimulating.

This "Otello" was definitely not for everyone. If you were looking for an "old Italian" "Otello", you would have been disappointed; This was one of the least Italianizing readings of the possible work. Kaufmann is a cerebral and honeyed tenor who has recently undergone difficult vocal contractions, and who certainly does not have the huge passionate voice associated with this part. Harteros has a trumpet-like clarinet voice that emits individual sounds of great beauty but offers little clarity or sweetness. Even Finley, who stole the limelight as a fascinating, gooey and surprisingly credible Iago, brought her own contemporary twist rather than traditional Italian fireworks. Petrenko's fervent direction was equally cold, as one of those daylight bulbs illuminating every explosion and a tender whisper in the score.

However, the fact was that the production did not even try to be an Italian "Otello", but rather to work with what it had to create a new perspective of the familiar drama. Niermeyer focused on Desdemona, using Harteros' vocal force to portray a stronger, older, more independent character than the norm for this character – with some children even, if I read the brief moment of the chorus of Act II when they appeared – and inserting it into almost every scene.

This posed some problems. First, Niermeyer almost sabotaged his own concept in the opening scene by reducing the storm and the heroic entry of Otello into the realm of the domestic, while Desdemona roamed her auditorium while the choir and soloists (including Galeano Salas as Rodrigo, the great Evan LeRoy Johnson as a Cassio with integrity, and Milan Siljanov as a hot Montano) sang under her in a quasi- darkness. Another problem was that Harteros' performance and the beautiful sounds she sometimes produced were undermined by her wanderings of both the tempo and the correct tone. Petrenko, in the pit, had to do a lot of heavy work to bring the theater and fire to the opening stage and help ensure that Desdemona's scenes remain fluid.

Gerald Finley, stealing the show as depraved and credible Iago, with Jonas Kaufmann in "Otello" of the Bavarian State Opera (Wilfried Hosl).

Yet Otello and Desdemona's essential vision of Niedermeyer as a long-married couple, trying to break their growing isolation and find each other, was often revealing. The sets offered paired spaces, one behind the other, in extremely dark gray and whites; At one point in each scene, a wall fell between the two, blocking Desdemona's view. The reward came in the final scene when Otello entered Desdemona's room to kill her and found her standing near the fire. During the stage, they embraced with all the nostalgia, love, hope and mistrust of a long familiarity, a reminder that it could have gone otherwise, if only it had happened.

For some, this kind of change of perspective is a distraction; the work of the director, they say, consists in elucidating the meaning of the composer. But even if I did not like everything about the staging of Niermeyer, the first scene! the kitsch of the choir celebrating Desdemona, decorated with flowers – I went away thinking a lot about the characters and their relationships. To engage with a great job and have confidence in him to be able to show off his different facets is, after all, the goal of the exercise – the dividing line between creativity and mere regurgitation.

The Niermeyer concept also allowed some better performance. I do not know how Kaufmann would do in a more traditional "Otello", but I found him quite credible in this one, who presented him as a less heroic and declamatory character than the norm, and thus helped to cover the fact that his voice is not the ideal type or weight for this role. His Sunday performance, if calculated, was calculated on a good basis, clearly illuminated by some of his great predecessors in the role. And although it was not an Otello I was listening to, what it offered was more simpatico, in my ear, than some of the newest and strongest supporters of the role.

I would also say that Finley's genius was precisely put forward by Niermeyer's conception that Iago was a slightly dissolute Mediterranean thief, in the style of a jet-set, dressed in a fitted t-shirt. and an ample, physically and sycophant summer pant – which you might have already encountered. In fact, in the audience of the incoming opera. Finley went to town with the following role: proclaiming that he did not believe in anything and no matter what he was doing, he slammed the fourth wall and the people around him with equal bitterness. joy and such deceptive decency that his powerful song seemed easy. He could do as well in a traditional production. But given the choice between this production and, for example, Bartlett Sher at the Met, I would like, with some reservations, to take this one.


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