The New York Times, June 22, 2017
|By Zachary Woolfe
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 21. Juni 2017
Jonas Kaufmann Sings an "Otello" for the Ages
The peak of the mountain of tenor roles in Italian opera is the title
character in Verdi’s “Otello,” driven by manufactured jealousy to murder his
wife. It demands trumpeting high notes and snarled depths, civic dignity and
lashes of madness, public pronouncements and private grief.
who can merely get through it are few and far between — and those who fully
master it come around perhaps once in a generation. The 1980s and ’90s were
dominated by Plácido Domingo’s Otello; there have since been some
contenders, but none have really claimed the mantle.
people have been asking for years if and when the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann
would attempt it. And, once he did it, would he own it? His voice’s dark,
burnished mahogany color, its dusky, hooded quality, has long recalled great
Otellos like Ramón Vinay and Jon Vickers. He has had triumphs in Wagnerian
roles like Lohengrin, Parsifal and Siegmund that ask for Otello-like weight
The long-awaited moment finally arrived on Wednesday:
In front of a sold-out Royal Opera House here, Mr. Kaufmann made his debut
in the part, and he calmly, confidently sang it for the ages. His sound
inescapably evokes memories of live performances and classic recordings by
Vinay, Vickers and other masters; in a single night he joined their company.
(He sings five more performances, through July 10.)
Up until the
curtain rose, there were naysayers who doubted whether this beloved but
elusive and cancellation-prone artist would actually go through with it. In
March, he dropped out of a highly anticipated new “Tosca” at the
Metropolitan Opera next season, because of the time it would require him to
be away from his young family, calling into question the future of his
career in the United States. ( He is scheduled to sing an act of Wagner’s
“Tristan und Isolde” at Carnegie Hall in April, but he has not appeared at
the Met since 2014.)
Well, if Mr. Kaufmann will not come to the
United States, then the United States — or at least its most devoted opera
fans — must go to Mr. Kaufmann: He’s worth it. If there were any questions
about his voice’s power and flexibility at age 47, they were resoundingly
answered on Wednesday as he delivered Otello’s opening victory cry, the
ringing “Esultate,” with both grandeur and haunted smokiness. His tone
remained smooth, his high notes steady, even at the end of the second act,
an exhausting, long confrontation as Otello is persuaded of his wife
Desdemona’s infidelity — imaginary, of course — by his malignant ensign,
He made the start of the great monologue “Dio mi potevi” so
soft and vaporous that it gave the uncanny effect of listening to the inner
workings of Otello’s mind. And after smothering Desdemona and realizing, too
late, her innocence, Mr. Kaufmann’s final outpouring of remorse, “Niun mi
tema,” took on grim, ashen gravity.
But more impressive than any
single passage was his uniform security in a role that strains even top
tenors. Mr. Kaufmann is simply right for the role (he was, we might say,
born to sing it): His voice’s gloomy melancholy, the naturalness with which
it portrays wounded outsiders, made it perfect for this wary general.
While his singing was nearly flawless, he didn’t convey — not on the
first night, at least — the part’s sheer intensity. When Mr. Kaufmann strode
onstage to stop a drunken riot in the first act, he seemed almost bored. “My
blood begins to boil,” Otello claims — but you wouldn’t know it from the
perfectly poised yet emotionally chilled singing. In the agonized second
act, as Otello comes to believe the accusations against Desdemona and flails
at controlling his growing rage, Mr. Kaufmann made beautiful sounds but gave
no palpable sense of inner struggle.
It may be possible to organize
an “Otello” production around a dazed, detached protagonist — and Keith
Warner’s staging emphasizes the character’s isolation, giving him a few
lonely seconds onstage, watching the crowd, after his blazing “Esultate.”
But there were too many moments on Wednesday that seemed to be grasping for
old-fashioned passion to convince me that Mr. Kaufmann’s tendency toward
coolness was entirely intentional.
And that edge of chill kept being
shown up by Antonio Pappano’s vivid, ardent conducting. During Desdemona and
Otello’s love duet at the end of Act 1, for example, Mr. Pappano sent off
spikes of extreme feeling that Mr. Kaufmann, for all his vocal finesse,
didn’t quite match.
In the delicate final bars of that duet, Mr.
Pappano conjured a landscape simultaneously intimate and cosmic; later, he
accompanied a young officer’s confession of an infatuation with a rush of
rustic, hormonal energy. I’d never heard the orchestra’s growling postlude
to Iago’s “Credo” so vibrant — as if that character were spitting angrily on
the ground after his sneering speech. And Mr. Pappano led a chorus capable
of both luminous prayer at the end of the storm in the opening scene, and
tipsy agility in the drinking song that follows.
Her Desdemona simple
and good-hearted, Maria Agresta sang with a tone that was sometimes full and
womanly, sometimes cloudlike; Marco Vratogna was a blunt, somber Iago.
Large swaths of Mr. Warner’s production — with period costumes (Kaspar
Glarner) paired with blank, vaguely contemporary sets (Boris Kudlicka) and
stark lighting (Bruno Poet) — are shadowy, plain and straightforward. But
the staging is pockmarked, particularly toward the end, with tacky touches,
clichés of contemporary opera direction: lines from the libretto written as
graffiti; broken statuary; a splatter of blood on an otherwise pristine
white wall; a final, pointless neon halo around Desdemona’s bedroom.
But none of those irritating interventions detracted much from the news of
the night: Mr. Kaufmann’s superbly assured singing of one of the most
daunting roles in the repertory. His Otello is clearly still in formation
dramatically, but vocally it is already a part of the great tradition.