Despite drab staging, magnificent singing and conducting make for a triumphant Met “Otello”

September 23, 2015
By Eric Simpson
Sonia Yoncheva and Andrs Antonenko in the Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's "Otello." Photo: Ken Howard.

Sonya Yoncheva and Aleksandrs Antonenko in the Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s “Otello.” Photo: Ken Howard.

The playbill cover for the Metropolitan Opera’s season-opening production of Verdi’s Otello features the publicity photo that nearly sparked a fire: Aleksandrs Antonenko in a moorish tunic, rendered here in black and white so as not to betray the bronze makeup he wears in the original. Whether moved by altruism or by fatigue from last year’s horde of controversies, the Met decided to break with tradition and not present the star tenor in blackface, a decision that has been well received, if not exactly hailed for artistic boldness.

What Monday’s opening-night performance needed, in fact, was a bolder choice that could fill the gaps created by that very decision. It’s fair to say that, given the charged history of blackface in America, the Met’s leading tenor needn’t be made up to satisfy operatic tradition—especially given that archival production photos of the late Jon Vickers, to whom Monday’s performance was dedicated, hardly scream “theatrical verisimilitude.”

But the difference between Otello and the people around him—and, perhaps most importantly, between him and Desdemona—is essential to understanding the underlying friction that drives him ultimately to violence, however it may manifest itself in the staging. In Bartlett Sher’s setting—a peculiar gothic twist on Habsburg Venice—the great general is just about indistinguishable from anyone else, and seems perfectly well adjusted, a favorite son returning home to hard-won acclaim and a promise of domestic bliss.

These questions of character were too much for the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko to answer, as, unfortunately, was much of the music. As Otello, he was far more successful in martial than in marital material; the tenor showed considerable power in Act II as he recalled his most famous victories. His more tender moments came out forced, particularly his amorous duet with Desdemona at the end of Act I, as well as every subsequent refrain of “un bacio . . . ancora un bacio.” As a characterization, this made sense for the hardened warrior, but musically it was unsatisfying.

Still, Sonya Yoncheva found plenty to work with as Desdemona, presenting a perfect foil to her gloomy husband. Where Antonenko’s voice sounded like worn leather, hers was pure honey. She showed wide range both in her voice and in her acting, sounding tender and soothing in her early scenes with Otello, almost fierce in defying his accusations, and absolutely haunting in her account of the Willow Song. Her “Ave Maria” was spellbinding, showing a purity and shine in her voice, helped along by gossamer playing from the strings of the Met Orchestra.

This Desdemona makes for yet another memorable portrayal in Yoncheva’s young but fast-rising Met career. On multiple occasions she has proven herself to be a complete artist in every sense. Her voice is remarkable, a powerful soprano of vast dynamic range, amber in color, and full in weight. She pairs this instrument with a superb dramatic sense, making intelligent emotional choices that always go hand-in-hand with her musical ones. No matter what level she is singing at, Yoncheva seems to project an intensity that makes one want to grab the arms of the chair.

Željko Lučić made his own mark as Iago, a role with no small history at the Met. His deep, oaky tone is perfectly suited to the part, and he played the character with chill cunning, finding hints of nuance. A thin layer of slime lay just below his affable surface in the Act I drinking song, as he set the first steps of his plot into motion by coaxing Cassio (a copper-voiced Dmitri Pittas) into a drunken fight. He showed an entirely different side, of course, in his soliloquy “Credo in un dio crudel,” bringing harrowing power to bear and earning the only outburst of applause to interrupt the mostly continuous score.

The accolades and opportunities at the Met for Yannick Nezet-Séguin have been many in the past few years. The opening night assignment on Monday was his biggest yet, and he met the challenge, giving another impassioned performance leading the company’s assembled forces. His sense of the grand scale of the piece, as ever, was keen, and he guided its dramatic arc with confidence. It was especially exciting to hear how this young maestro has grown more sensitive to details: the precision of texture that he brought out of each section of the orchestra was superior. Some of the more pictorial writing for orchestra was brilliantly vivid as a result, as in the gorgeous, weeping Act IV prelude.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus, taking on some of Verdi’s richest choral material on Monday, has rarely sounded better, singing with tremendous power and clinging faithfully to Nezet-Séguin’s direction. Several comprimarii had strong nights, as well, notably Günther Groissböck as a gravelly Lodovico and Jennifer Johnson Cano, velvet-voiced and earnest as Emelia. Chad Shelton made a nice debut as a Roderigo with more swagger than snivel, showing a strong, almost wooly tenor.

Sher’s staging, unfortunately, adds little to these performances, even beyond the matter of its approach to the question of Otello’s “otherness.” Ghostly green waves projected on a front scrim for the opening storm become a recurring (and soon tired) image. Large, rolling, plexiglass facades are wheeled in and out of slats in the angled rear walls to divide up the playing area and create vertical space, but they seem to have little purpose beyond those practical functions and lighting up prettily when hit with a colored floodlight. The bare essentials of furnishings fill in the gaps, but never enough to enliven a crowd scene or focus a more intimate exchange.

The performances of Yoncheva, Lučić, and Nezet-Séguin alone are grounds to call this opening night a triumph, and they should be able to carry this new production through the end of its run. But Sher does not seem to have found much imaginative spark here, and his staging seems unlikely to hold up well with lesser casts in future years.

Otello runs through May 6 at the Metropolitan Opera. Hibla Gerzmava assumes the role of Desdemona beginning April 20, with Adam Fischer conducting.

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