Opera News, June 2004
Verdi: Otello, Paris Opéra Bastille, March 2004
PARIS - Otello, Opéra National de Paris, 3/20/04
The last new Opéra National de Paris production to be conducted by current music director James Conlon for was Andrei Serban’s staging of Verdi’s Otello. This was the finest Verdi conducting Conlon has done for the Bastille; the symphonic style of this late-Verdi masterpiece suits the maestro’s big-boned lyrical approach better than the brutal ferocity of the composer’s youthful work. Serban’s production was inoffensive without offering any new insight into the work, and his concept did not disturb the glorious flow of the composer’s invention. The producer suggests that Otello is a fatally flawed man, obsessed by his glory and that his love for Desdemona is an unconsummated passion — even though Verdi’s sexually charged Act I duet suggests that this is not the first night the couple have found themselves alone. Serban sees Iago as a simple catalyst putting a match to an already potentially explosive situation.

The show began with a magnificently staged storm with reflective black rainwear accompanied by tempestuous lightning from Joël Hourbeigt, who later in the act produced a fireside scene that was a veritable towering inferno. The thin gauze that divided the public scenes from the more intimate domestic scenes, was reasonably effective, but having Desdemona receive a blessing from a priest while Iago sang his diabolic “Credo” seemed an unnecessary underlining of the message. Designer Peter Pabst’s only aberration in an otherwise conventional set was a hotel-lobby-style red sofa, which took center stage in Act II, with Iago incongruously plumping up its cushions. (Somehow such domestic duties are not something one associates with the character of Iago.) The Act IV climax was movingly staged with Desdemona undressing in shadow behind a thin veil, later ripped asunder by Otello, an instance of Serban’s sexual symbolism in overdrive.

The same artists who had under-impressed in last year’s Chorégies d’Orange Otello, Vladimir Galouzine and Jean-Philippe Lafont, again sang Otello and Iago. Galouzine was in better voice at the Bastille on March 20 than in last summer’s fraught festival performance. This proud bear of a man fitted well into Serban’s concept and his trumpeting "Esultate" promised an evening where the big vocal moments were going to be met head on. His very baritonal sound lacks tenorial brilliance, but there is no questioning the force of the trumpeting top third of his voice. His Italian, however, remains clotted and inexpressive and the tenor is careless in terms of intonation, making simple moments when the vocal pressure was off something of a trial. Lafont was even more problematic than in Orange. The role of Iago lies slightly too high for his bass-baritone; the drinking song was full of gritty, hectoring tone and his bulging eyed melodramatic approach rapidly palled. An effort at insinuating soft singing in the dream was welcome, but the management of long, fluid bel canto lines was left to Barbara Frittoli, a Desdemona of enormous class and shimmering beauty. Not in her best voice in Act I, Frittoli quickly settled down to provide a classic reading of her Act IV scena. This was a light approach to the role, reminiscent of the young Freni, but the big ensembles stretch Frittoli’s lyrical Mozartian voice to its limits. Particularly fine support came from Jonas Kaufmann’s Cassio, who sang with virile tenor tone and made a very positive contribution to the first act, while Elena Cassian’s Emilia brought off her final denunciation scene with unbridled mezzo tone.

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