|By Polina Lyapustina
Verdi: Otello, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 23. November 2018
Bayerische Staatsoper 2018–19 Review: Otello
Can great singing justify the whole opera production?
This season director Amélie Niermeyer presented a new production of
Verdi’s masterpiece “Otello” at the Bayerische Staatsoper.
controversial production any heroic as well as historical context was
removed. Instead of a story of an exhausted hero, broken under the pressure
of doubts and jealousy, we received a story of a weak man full of anger and
with no power to control it, being manipulated by just another bad man.
Otello was thus a mad tyrant and somehow his beautiful and smart victim,
Desdemona, who feels danger from the very beginning, never really tries to
And that was absolutely unconvincing.
“The character I
really feel sorry for is the victim — Desdemona,” — Niermeyer said. I
wonder, why having all the instruments to highlight any shade of Desdemona’s
personality, the director decided to show this proud, true, and noble woman
as just a victim, deserving pity?
Perhaps, Niermeyer tried to bust
the problem, depriving it of “unnecessary details.” Details like a social
context and love itself. And what was shown was just darkness with no
Instead of blackface the director turned the whole opera into
Niermeyer tried so hard to impose of this idea
as Desdemona as the opera’s grand heroine. We don’t see the people of Cyprus
anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new governor in the first scene but
only witness Desdemona, almost fainting while waiting for her husband in her
room. There was also a scene with flaming sleeves, which I still have doubts
about how to interpret. But none of that made her a hero.
Fortunately, Anja Harteros managed to do it herself.
triumphed in the show and one could say she was the standout of the evening.
She has a rich lirico-spinto soprano, which is under her total control. Her
tone is effortlessly focused and during the performance she moved fluently
from forte to piano and from high A to the very bottom of the tessitura. Her
voice displays power, agility and brightness, which she uses with a high
degree of skill.
Trying to cool down her husband at the end of Act
one, she showed nobility using the beauty of her timbre. Unfortunately the
scene itself was rather strange with Otello trying to distance himself from
Desdemona, literally running away from her.
Playing with fire in
“D’un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno la preghiera ti porto” in Act two,
she showed real strength in her voice, trying to balance it with a hint of
vulnerability, facing her husband’s anger.
Her “Quella parola
orrenda” in the Act three duet was delivered with a dreadful and paralyzing
sound and the lightest or highest sound she delivered was so clean and
bright that you could hear it against the backdrop of a roaring orchestra at
different junctures of the opera.
In Act four she brought great
acting and wonderful lyricism. Her “Willow song” was haunting and towards
the climax her voice exploded in agony, particularly as she sung “Emilia
Addio.” Her high A sharp made the room flinch. And then her voice started to
die down as she sang the “Ave Maria.” As she phrased her final “Amen” there
was a sense of acceptance to her unfortunate fate. She was so silent and
gentle, that minutes later it was so hard to believe, she would try to
somehow protect her life.
It’s Own Little drama
Jonas Kaufmann had
a solid performance throughout the evening, keeping to the score’s
ever-shifting vocal dynamics. During his “Esulate” he delivered a strong and
effortless A natural at the apex of the passage; it must be noted that the
moment was spoiled a bit as he appeared in a bedroom and his only spectator
was his wife. But his second entrance, “Abbasso le spade,” fortunately
reaffirmed his authority to the people.
The relationship between
Kaufmann and Gerald Finley was excellent as they matched each other quite
well vocally and acting wise. During every duet with Finley, Kaufmann showed
perfect control of tone, keeping it smooth but eventually exploding in
climactic moments. Many could argue that Jago was the scene stealer with his
presence and scheming villainy but in the case of their extended scenes, the
tenor was a force to be reckoned with vocally.
Kaufmann also excelled
in the Act three duet with Desdemona, showing a full-throated spinto that
was able to modulate in numerous ways required by the demanding scene. He
began with an almost gentle tone, that matched the opening duet. But then
the phrasing took on a staccato quality, and he went through confidence,
hysteria, calmness, tenderness, contempt, and raw aggression in just a few
His “Dio mi potevi” was delivered with the finest pianissimo
and a pure tone, then his madness exposed his weakness, and he threw himself
to the floor where he lost an ability to produce any more sound.
Kaufmann also did not miss an opportunity to highlight the brutality and
violence in Act four. There was a sense of realism as he shouted and charged
A Triumphant Jago
Gerald Findley sang with a
delicate timbre and a smooth tone, making him, seem convincingly honest, way
more than dangerous. That was also emphasized in his pajama-like costume.
He delivered a great performance in the duet “Roderigo, ebben che
pensi,” acting in the manner of a royal jester. The “Inaffia L’igola”
confirmed his ability to accomplish his terrifying goal with an innocent
Perhaps, Finley made Jago the only fully believable character
with clear motives. But it wasn’t the Jago we’re used to seeing in “Otello.”
He is wicked, and he, devoid of historical and social context as well, is
probably mad, so praying to his cruel God he did it way too literally.
His Jago was less aggressive and masculine, which never ruined his tone,
though he obtained a cruder color every time he was thinking about his
plans. This was most apparent in Act two when it seemed like he turned the
whole stage into his own madness and everyone agreed to be there.
Evan LeRoy displayed a bright and strong tone as Cassio, as well as
convincing acting skills. Cristina Damian, who replaced Rachael Wilson as
Emilia, displayed vocal radiance in her short appearances and never got lost
in ensembles. And one of her most memorable and powerful moments came when
she slapped Jago in the face.
Petrenko opts to reign in the emotionally overwhelming music with a steady
pace, and knows how to pick out moments to present them in the most
He brought the true power of Verdi’s masterpiece,
but also never forgot to give room for silence and subtlety. Those pauses
and lighter touches seemed to reflect the loss of the social context.
The orchestra became an equal partner for the singers on stage and
definitely exceeded the chorus, which was always driven out of the stage.
Kirill Petrenko and the BSO orchestra were the strongest counterpoint to
this conflicting directing. Petrenko’s interpretation feels very
comfortable, with no cliches. He also left possibilities for singers to give
their own visions, as if it was not Verdi, but older opera with variations.
And that was great.
Can great voices save an opera production? Yes,
they can, and they’ve done just that in this production. “Otello” at the
Bayerische Staatsoper deserves all the applause and admiration, it received.
But I keep asking myself, being a modern woman, if a beautiful old thing
(which original Verdi’s piece is) to be undermined and stripped of its
meaning in order to fill the needs of a talented director who simply wants
to tell her own version of the story, even if that version does center on a
I appreciate the idea, but am forced to admit that the
director failed to reach her goal on the whole.
The reasons why this
Otello is still one of the best operas I’ve seen this year is not because of
some bold direction or new idea, but due to Verdi’s amazing score as
interpreted by the force of Petrenko, Harteros, Kaufmann, and Finley.