It’s not every day that you learn something new about a 125 year old opera based on a 400 year old play. But the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Otello, directed by Bartlett Sher, is a revelation. The first production of the 2015-2016 season, given the red-carpet treatment at a glittering premiere, was panned by the first-night critics—and those critics are wrong. It has been called “tentative” and “conceptual rather than believable.” In fact, it’s is dramatically bold and vocally beautiful, and it makes an arrestingly original contribution to the appreciation of Verdi. I strongly recommend you see it if you can (Sept. 21-Oct. 17 and April 20-May 6; tickets $27-460) or view it on HD in theaters (Oct. 17 and 21, worldwide).
To understand this production you have to do something critics don’t do often enough, which is to go back to the original material and the core of the composer’s concept. Better than most critics, Sher engages with the opera’s sources, and the strengths (and weaknesses) of the production arise organically from Verdi’s influences and intentions.
Everybody knows the story of Shakespeare’s Othello. When we see a Moorish general in the Venetian service on Cyprus, a man beset by jealousy as his supposed friend whispers poison into his ear, a loving wife being told to wake up and pray by her husband, half out of his mind or more, who’s holding a pillow—we know at once whom we’re seeing. We know his back story, his strengths and flaws and tragic end, no matter what part of the story we meet him in.
Verdi knew his audience would already be intimately familiar with his hero, and he used this to sharpen and focus his opera. He cut much of the exposition that Shakespeare needed to draw Othello’s character. One extended, opening chorus establishes Otello’s credentials as a military leader and hero, and a famous love duet at the end of his first act makes clear the hero’s back-story and his passion for Desdemona. (This duet was accompanied by a short, lyric solo by principal cellist Jerry Grossman that drove its ache and longing right into the bone.) But because Shakespeare’s creation is so well-known, that’s all the groundwork the composer had to lay. Verdi was free therefore to focus the rest of his opera with unrelenting intensity on Otello’s corruption by Iago, his descent into evil delusion, and his psychological torture and murder of his wife. As Verdi also eliminates Shakespeare’s side-plots, the opera is highly concentrated, taking only a tight two and a half hours (plus intermission) to stage.
But there were other influences at work on Verdi besides Shakespeare, and other ideas that he and his librettist, Arrigo Boito, a notable poet in his own right, brought to the table. Foremost among these are the influence of Wagner, and Verdi’s own romantic focus on the consuming passions of the three main characters, expressed in his dark, powerful, naturalistic music. It is on these aspects of the opera, rather than the Shakespearean roots, that this production drew most heavily. The great accomplishment of Sher’s production is that it illuminates the Wagner-Verdi connection that lies behind the opera musically, just as Shakespeare lies behind the opera dramatically.
Sher’s Otello is staged not in the 16th century, but at the time of the opera’s composition, the late 19th century. And while the setting is still nominally Cyprus, many visual cues suggest a northern setting. Sher claims to have drawn heavily on Ibsen (“of whom,” the Financial Times laconically notes, “the erudite Boito was aware if not necessarily a documented admirer.”) The costumes, by Catherine Zuber, are extremely dark, somewhat modernized variants of 19th-century court dress. Otello and his men dress primarily in blacks, purples, and dark reds. While there are occasional flashes of light—Desdemona’s arresting white and red dresses, the white outfits of some native Cypriots, and the gilded glitter of visiting Ambassadors—overall, northern twilight, rather than the sunlight that bathes Cyprus, prevails. Night is always close at hand. So too is the sea. Behind the set (of which more below) hangs a screen onto which computerized waves, designed by Luke Halls, are projected. They are green-black, reminiscent of North and Baltic Seas rather than the Mediterranean, and their endless rolling reinforces the isolation of the island and those on it.
Because these visual cues point north, you’re confronted again and again by the opera’s relationship to Wagner—an aspect usually buried under superficial differences. Though Verdi vehemently denied it, the influence of his German rival is hard to miss in the music of Otello. Like the works of Wagner, it is through-composed, which is to say there are not separately defined arias and choruses, but rather the melody flows endlessly from one piece into the next. This has been noted before; what’s new here, though, is that the production allows you also to see the dramatic resemblances between the works of the two titans of 19th century opera. Trapped by the sea and tormented by his own demons, Otello strongly resembles Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Desdemona, for her part, parallels Senta, the woman the hero loves but does not trust.
The role of Otello is musically much more like a Wagnerian heldentenor part than one usually sees in Italian opera—and it’s also strikingly difficult. Aleksandr Antonenko is a veteran in this part: he was recruited personally and trained for 18 months by Riccardo Muti to perform Otello at the Salzburg Festival in 2008. Both in his singing and his acting, Antonenko emphasizes Otello’s martial and heroic aspects, which slowly morph into possessiveness, jealousy, and unhinged violence. The flaws in our hero are much more visible from the start in Verdi then they are in Shakespeare. And because this production doesn’t look like Shakespeare, it at times loses touch with the associations with the play’s more carefully drawn character—associations that Verdi might have been relying on to soften his hero’s image.
Antonenko himself looks more like the Flying Dutchman than Shakespeare’s Othello: the tenor is Lithuanian, and foreswore the traditional makeup for the “Moorish” Otello due to the ugly historic connotations of blackface. This isn’t simply an exercise in cultural sensitivity; the decision derives from, and enhances, the production’s interpretation of Antonenko’s role.
The Nordic connection is also reinforced by the Es Devlin-designed set, which consists of large, ice-like glass partitions, semi-frosted but still transparent, that slide around to form the walls of the palace and the gardens. Inside them are staircases and passageways—one can see Iago spying and scheming or Otello just failing to miss a crucial piece of information as he eavesdrops.
Devlin is one of Met manager Peter Gelb’s outside-the-box picks—her resume includes Beyonce concerts and the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics as well as Don Giovanni at London’s Royal Opera House and Faust at the Semperoper. Her set is where the production is at its most conceptual. As Devlin explained at a preview at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series, she derived the idea from a letter Boito wrote to Verdi, in which the librettist applauded the composer for entrapping his characters in an ever-closing prism. Likewise, Sher and Devlin use the moving walls to close in on Otello as the psychological pressure from Iago intensifies, particularly in Act 2. It’s very clever—but I wonder how accessible it is to someone who hasn’t been briefed beforehand.
All of these changes offer rare insights into the opera Otello—but they also take us away from Shakespeare’s Othello. Much like an impressionist painter, Sher has emphasized provocative, potentially under-appreciated aspects of its subject at the price of the aspects and proportions he’s not focusing on. If you go in expecting to see a musical version of Shakespeare’s play, you’re going to be disappointed or even angered; if you’re prepared to see an interpretation of Verdi’s opera, you’ll find it provocative in the best sense.
You’ll also find it aurally gorgeous; there’s more going on here than a dramatized critical essay on Verdi and Wagner. The Met’s orchestra, conducted for this production by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is superb throughout. The French-Canadian leader of the Philadelphia Orchestra brings extraordinary verve and clarity to Verdi, who often suffers from being muddled.
And the two other co-stars, along with Antonenko, make significant, interesting contributions. The part of Iago is often cast as a young, ambitious, even visually serpentine archetype of jealousy. But Serbian baritone Željko Lučić depicts him instead as a superannuated ensign, twisted by aspirations that have clearly been thwarted, almost banal in his evil. The resulting creation is menacingly familiar—he could be plotting against you from the office next door. Lučić’s star turn is the aria “Credo in un dio crudel” (I believe in a cruel God), which he delivers superbly in rich, menacing tones.
Meanwhile, one of the high points of this opera is getting to see and hear its third star, the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, as Desdemona. Up until the last act, when there is no hope, Yoncheva’s Desdemona is full of life, her powerful yet sweet voice filling the hall to match her husband’s or Iago’s, stating her case patiently but with great dignity, refusing to go quietly into that good night. This in turn shows a side of the hero that’s easy to gloss over in Shakespeare: the wife-beating caudillo, who is not merely content to murder secretly but abuses openly. In many ways, one realizes, this production, with its emphasis on isolation and psychological pressure, embodies Desdemona’s view of Otello.
While the production is vocally beautiful and visually interesting, the psychological intensity, Sher’s Wagnerian setting, and the performances of Yoncheva and Antonenko combine to make this at times one of the bleakest operas I’ve ever seen. In particular, the second and third acts—which, probably not coincidentally, are visually the furthest removed from the cues that remind you of Shakespeare’s Othello—are not only extremely dark, but increasingly hopeless. At the end of the third act, you feel like you’ve stared into the abyss long enough that it’s now staring back into you.
Nothing you’ve seen so far prepares you for what’s about to come: a transcendently beautiful fourth act that ties everything back together. It reunites the Shakespearean Othello with this new and unexpected Wagnerian Otello we have been seeing; it sublimates the isolation and pathos of the performance into true tragic catharsis.
The set is stripped down to just the sea-screen, bare boards, and a bed, prie-dieu, and nightstand. Yoncheva’s talent is on full display during two of the finest pieces in the soprano repetoire: the “Willow Song,” which Desdemona, dreading being left alone, sings to her maid, and the “Ave Maria” as she kneels in one final prayer. Yoncheva is lyric, pathetic, soft in tone and yet resonant in volume when needed—it’s masterful.
For his part, Antonenko saved the softest and most romantic tones in his voice for his sung conversation with his wife just before he kills her, a startling and highly effective decision that underlines the tragic irony of the tale. And the concluding baccio moment, as a dying Otello begs the dead Desdemona for one last kiss, left not an eye dry, including mine.
At the end, the beauty of Verdi’s music and the pathos of Shakespeare’s plot overwhelms everything. The audience burst to their feat at the end of the performance in a long, spontaneous, standing ovation, with enthusiasm rarely seen at the Met. I, too, joined them.
It’s easy to view Italian opera, and in particularly the smooth-as-silk music of Verdi, as prettified, light entertainment, requiring less preparation on the part of the audience than the overtly intellectual Wagner or the “serious” tragedies of Shakespeare. (As Walter Russell Mead wrote this weekend, this misperception has been a cross opera in general has had to bear in the English-speaking world.) But as this production illustrates perfectly, Verdi was more than a prattling tunesmith—he was a deep and serious thinker. Few people could add something to Shakespeare, or stand on equal terms with Wagner. Verdi did.
And Sher’s production shows it. It’s startling, tragic, and sublimely beautiful. Run, don’t walk.