WNO has pulled out all the stops with the look and feel of its new Otello, directed by Norwegian Opera's current Artistic Director Paul Curran.
In making his directorial choice, Curran has opted for old-fashioned stage spectacle, presenting Verdi's 1887 masterpiece in a series of visually stunning tableaux that – literally – fill all the expanses of the Birmingham Hippodrome stage (and in order to tour this production, WNO have had to cut it down in size from the sets used at the Welsh Millenium Centre).
The costumes are extravagant and richly coloured and designer Paul Edwards pulls off a real coup de theatre in Act Three, with the arrival of the Venetian ambassadors, when the side walls suddenly part to reveal an enormous gilded Lion of Venice: it is at this point too that the predominant reds of the lighting scheme switch to silver and gold, completely changing the look of the entire stage. Some have questioned a pile of onstage rocks that feature throughout: we first see Desdemona above them, looking out to sea, and a snake takes cover among them just as Iago makes an Act Two entrance, but when we are in Desdemona's bedroom for the final moments of the tragedy in Act Four, the rocks somehow seem out of place alongside a Queen sized bed draped in white silk – might they not have been covered in black velvet at that point, or removed altogether? Concepts, concepts…
Which is all the more strange since Curran has otherwise gone for narrative clarity with a straightforward blocking of his principals and a well made opera production that is light years on from the much-derided 'park and bark' style and yet still has some of its features. What struck me was that the chemistry of the evening was largely between individual principals and the audience, and hardly at all between the onstage characters. This may in part have been down to the fact that Terence Robertson was singing Otello in place of the indisposed Dennis O'Neill while Mark Holland was singing Iago for a similarly suffering David Kempster, but I do not think this was the only reason for a lack of emotional 'bite' among and between the soloists themselves. They seem to have been directed to sing out to the audience and that is what they did. It only added to the feeling that this Otello was being directed and sung a shade too reverently, with the considerable forces at WNO's disposal (a chorus of 60 including the extra chorus) almost being overwhelmed by the scale of their undertaking.
Let us start with that chorus. It is a feature of WNO productions that the chorus feature large, and this show was no exception. In the opening storm scene they sounded to me a shade underpowered at times, not really cresting the waves of orchestral sound that conductor Michal Klauza managed to coax from an alert and responsive WNO orchestra, but towards the end of their long sing in Act One, they had warmed up considerably and there was a bloom to their tone that inspired confidence – 'beve con te' was an irresistibly rollicking drinking song. And by the time we reached the spectacle of Act Three, the chorus was in great, confident voice – a huge plus for the production overall.
The smaller roles were mostly well cast. As Emilia, Claire Bradshaw impressed me with a secure mezzo technique, good vocal line and a performance overall that seemed well within her capabilities. Her Pocahontas appearance was slightly perplexing but she shows promise. David Soar as Lodovico also stood out as a young bass with a lot to offer. His sound is dark, with Heft, but also with pleasing clarity of line and excellent diction. Wynne Evans as Cassio put a great deal of energy, both vocal and physical, into his performance and sang the part decently enough, but without much finesse. But he was always watchable onstage and gave the production much needed momentum at times.
It is when we come to the principal roles that problems emerged. As we all know, the role of Otello himself is a challenging sing, and Terence Robertson did not really do enough to convince. He has commanding stature and succeeded in making his Desdemona look frail and vulnerable, but his tenor sound only achieved the ringing tone which can so thrill an audience at odd, disconnected moments. Robertson was scheduled to sing the role three times anyway but because of O'Neill's indisposition has sung it several times more: perhaps this is why the voice sounded lacklustre and a little jaded, certainly not strong enough to cut through the open and vibrant orchestral sound that the pit at Birmingham Hippodrome produces.
Opposite him as Desdemona, Amanda Roocroft was in better voice than I have heard her for some time. She managed at the outset to project youthful ardour in the voice and conveyed touchingly later on the bewilderment and alienation that Desdemona feels as she realises that Otello is falling out of love with her. The Willow Song was done with real lyricism and a genuine pianissimo and Roocroft did little wrong all evening: my only criticism is that her tone can become unattractive and squally when the voice is under pressure at the big moments. But on the whole, this was a decent performance.
Lastly there was the villain of the piece, Mark Holland as Iago, covering for David Kempster who has been well received in the role. First impressions of Holland were that the voice is quite small, attractively focused and well tuned: no trace of the flat undertone in those higher passages that Verdi loved to write for his baritone heroes as well as villains. As the evening progressed, Holland seemed to gain in confidence and the voice took on a richer quality – the Credo was well sung, with venom and effective accentuation. He tried to give Iago a distinctive vocal character and, by and large, succeeded. I liked his assumption of the role overall and will watch his progress with interest.
In the pit, Klauza conducted fluently. He set middle of the road tempi for the most part, and coordinated his forces well. I suspect that the orchestra are used to playing certain passages faster for Carlo Rizzi and I missed a little idiomatic Italian flair at times, but overall this Otello was a competent, well-executed reading of the work that does WNO, the largest touring opera company in Europe, great credit. And what a work of genius it is! So even if WNO did not surmount all the challenges posed by Verdi's penultimate attempt at Shakespeare in opera, they did enough to remind us of the work's quality and status – an achievement in itself.
Read an interview with Amanda Roocroft about singing Desdemona here.