Operawire, June 29, 2017
|Posted By: Francisco Salazar
Verdi: Otello, Royal Opera House, London, 28. Juni 2017
Jonas Kaufmann Cements His Legacy As One of History’s Great Otellos
Jonas Kaufmann has been hailed as the greatest tenors alive and is one of the most exciting performers currently working today. So it was no surprise that he would one day take the iconic role of Verdi’s “Otello.” There were many doubters regarding his availability (or ability) to master the role, especially after many high-profile cancellations due to illness. However, the tenor arrived just fine on Wednesday, June 28, 2017, to give one of the most gut-wrenching performances of his career.
A Historic Otello
Kaufmann has one of most beautiful
timbres there are, his instrument possessing the flexibility to move from
finessed legati to a more brutal and raw force. He displayed the full range
of these abilities with his interpretation of the famed Moor.
opening “Esultate” was delivered with a heroic pose on top of a bench,
showcasing his power. This was confident man beloved by the people at the
top of his game. He hit the B natural grace note without any seeming effort
and it rang with power in the house, his gaze fixed on his beloved Desdemona
His second entrance “Abbasso le spade” saw Kaufmann
enter from upstage, vigor, and sense of authority at its peak. One
immediately got the sense of a man in complete control, his movements
calculated as he went straight to Iago to ask what had happened. “Gia nella
notte densa” is a troubling passage for some Otello interpreters, their
heavy voices unable to truly melt into the delicate phrasing Verdi calls
for. But Kaufmann was spot on here, caressing each moment with a smooth
sound, the first phrases pianissimo, eventually crescendoing in the more
heroic moments without ever going full bombast. He always kept the line
refined, following Agrestas’ pure tone. During the “Un Bacio” passage, that
most glorious of musical moments, Kaufmann imbued warmth into his sound that
matched Agresta’s silky tone, both relishing the moment as they hugged and
kissed. During the final notes, they turned away from the audience as they
moved toward the bedroom chambers, their voices meshing well to create a
The second Act might be one of the great acting
challenges of the opera, the tenor transforming from the great hero into a
vengeful monster. Whereas many tenors go unhinged at an accelerated pace,
Kaufmann kept his cool. He attacked Iago in disbelief and his B natural
right before the “Dove guardi” was delivered with authority and defiance.
During the quartet, however, that finesse started to obtain more choppy
phrasing. We could see this start to creep into the interpretation in “Ora e
per sempre” and “Si pel ciel,” where power and might overpowered any sense
of finesse and overall polish. As he looked into a mirror and saw a black
mask, Kaufmann started throwing things around in chaotic fashion. We could
now sense that he was losing control.
The first image of the third
Act was Kaufmann at the center of the stage. The first impression was that
Otello was back in control, but with Iago lurking in the shadows, Kaufmann’s
Otello looked weakened, especially with Iago entering shortly after.
During the subsequent duet with Desdemona, Kaufmann began with a smooth and
ardent tone that matched the opening duet. But the phrasing soon took on a
staccato quality, the lyric tone focused on emoting and the high register
turned more violent and raw. And yet, he accomplished this without yelling
or overdoing any single attack in the voice. The duet also had many violent
moments as Kaufmann took Agresta and pushed her to the wall trapping her
without a way out. But it never got to the point of rape. During the “Vil
cortigiana” moment Kaufmann could barely look at her as she was far back and
he was downstage. In this particular section, we could sense his remorse,
which was amplified during “Dio mi potevi” as Kaufmann sang with a pure tone
that connected each phrase, each pianissimo more beautiful that the one
before. The aria turned into a lament, and yet one could sense that he still
clung to some hope of Desdemona’s innocence.
But in the subsequent
trio, Kaufmann’s Otello once again retained a violent character. The
concertato showed it best. There was sarcasm in each line he sang before
taking Desdemona and throwing her to the floor. After his brutal behavior,
he ran to the corner almost as a child, still grappling with a sense of
guilt and confusion. But then Marco Vratogna’s Iago walked over to him
spewing more hate into his ear. As the concertato built to the climax,
Kaufmann interrupted with “Fuggite,” a loud cry in full voice. The tenor
turned away from the crowd after sending his wife away with a piercing A
sharp, his madness in full display as he immediately went to the floor
gasping for air, each phrase delivered with less and less power. And when
Vratogna forced the black mask on him Kaufmann struggled to try to take it
off. This was no longer a man in control but a pawn who had gone mad.
The final scene was one of the most memorable scenes I have seen in
opera. Kaufmann appeared through a mirror almost as a shadow of Desdemona.
The look on his face was of a possessed being and he entered the set quietly
with a sword in his hand. He went toward his Desdemona, who was lying on the
floor. As the music rampantly announced the footsteps, he took his sword as
if to behead her. However, the love music returned and Kaufmann put the
sword down and kissed her face. When she awoke, his tranquil face turned
back to the tormented figure. He quickly chased Desdemona to the bed, his
voice growing in its power and erratic nature. He took by her hands and as
he sang he took a pillow and strangled her. Kaufmann’s face filled with
triumph and madness at the same time in one of the most twisted moments of
When he finally discovered the truth, he took Iago and
threatened him with the sword. Unfortunately, Kaufmann’s Otello was too weak
by this point and he could not finish the deed. Kaufmann went on to sing
“Niun Mi Tema” with great restraint and caressed the lines “E tu… Come sei
palida!” as he looked towards his Desdemona. His voice weakened throughout,
but the emotion intensified. When he finally stabbed himself, Kaufmann let
out his full power in his voice resonating throughout the auditorium. One
felt this Otello’s remorse and pain. The blood gushing through his shirt,
Kaufmann quickly went to the bed and lay on his chest. As he sang the “Un
altro Bacio,” his sound grew weaker as if he couldn’t breathe and his
movement slowed to a crawl. He gasped on the final “Bacio,” dying on the
instant, but leaving the audience with a memory so potent and powerful that
can never be forgotten. Kaufmann is now undeniably the greatest Otello
interpreter of his time.
A conniving Iago
Kaufmann had a triumphant night, Marco Vratogna was not far behind. Vratogna
was basically in every scene, his presence growing more and more potent
throughout. He entered the stage holding a white mask and a black mask. When
he threw the white mask the music immediately rumbled into the auditorium.
Vratogna moved about the stage lining up Cassio and Rodrigo, interacting
with each one. From the get-go, you knew he was in control. Vratogna began
his interactions with Rodrigo almost in a sexual way as he threw him to the
ground and went on top of him slithering each phrase like a snake. His
interpretation of the drinking song was one of force and conviction. There
was a very clear snarl to it as he sang each line and his repetitions of
“Bevi.” He even extended the coloratura almost as if laughing at Cassio.
During the end of the love duet, Vratogna entered as an ominous shadow.
Before the stage went black, he kicked off the second act, moving
demonically into the famed “Credo.” He sang with force as the tone obtained
a cruder color. During the second half of the aria, Vratogna started to
decrescendo into a piano sound. There was even some beauty to his “E poi?”
But it was interrupted by his heroic final note and his quick bursts into
laughter. His manipulation of Otello was a game for him, each line more
conversational in delivery, the clarity of text getting the priority. When
Kaufmann grabbed him, Vratogna quickly ignored him and continued the spewing
of lies. His “Era la notte,” was sung with delicate timbre and a smoothness
of tone that could easily convince anyone that this Iago was honest. He sang
with poise and refinement, it almost felt like he was telling the truth.
Vratogna initiated his first entrance of “Si pel ciel” with a mezzo forte
sound, slowly building and equaling the power of Kaufmann’s Otello. This
musical transformation gave us a clue as to who was in control.
third Act saw Vratogna shadowing Kaufmann’s Otello, entering the stage only
to spew more hate. And in the trio, he delivered his brief patter with
playfulness, clearly relishing in his actions. The concertato saw Vratogna
once again move from one character to the next, each time telling them
something new. In his interaction with Otello, the idea of a legato line was
gone. Vratogna’s phrasing was staccato at best but more often emoting, which
was extremely effective for this conniving character.
moment of his victory was the final moment in Act three. As he says “Ecco il
Leone” Vratogna sang with full boom and stepped on Otello. He then went on
to force the black mask almost as if choking him to death. It was the
figurative death of Otello. Vratogna’s Iago was pure evil in his final
moments as he slit Emilia’s throat and ran around the stage threatening
everyone with a sword. Even as he is arrested, one could sense that he would
not fully pay for his horrid crimes.
A Pure Voice
If Kaufmann and Vratogna were dramatic forces, Maria Agresta gave a
performance of pure lyrical beauty. Her voice always maintained a gorgeous
full tone but also possessed true dramatic weight. Her opening lines were
sung with purity, spinning the pianos and crescendoing to the mezzo fortes.
The connectedness in the voice allowed audiences to see that this was a
Desdemona completely in love with Otello and one that was incapable of doing
harm. Her face filled with joy as she interacted with Kaufmann and caressed
During the chorus “Dove guardi,” Agresta textured her
sound, moving effortlessly from forte to piano. Even when she made the case
for Cassio, her voice had warmth and tenderness.
performance was not limited to simply beautiful singing, perhaps the most
moving moments coming in her Act three confrontation with Otello. She
started off with a soothing sound before finally letting out all her power
and rawness of her voice. In the climactic moment of the duet, the voice
blasted out into the auditorium with aplomb, Desdemona’s tears visceral.
“Quella parola orrenda” was delivered with a correspondingly horrendous
sound, a gut punch to the listener. In the concertato, Agresta was also in
full vocal bloom, her timbre rising over the chorus and orchestra.
And then there were the show-stopping “Salce” song and “Ave Maria.” She
began the scene picking up flowers before dropping them out of fear. Her
face filled with pain during the “Salce” song and in many moments, it felt
like she was mad. The repetitions of “Salce” took on an airy tone as she
started piano and died down. Each repetition of the phrase intensified, the
sound stronger and then dying down faster. Her voice exploded with passion
during “Emilia Addio,” the sense of foreboding wrenching. She employed a
mezza voce quality to the “Ave Maria,” drawing the listener in and adding to
the increasing sense of madness and vulnerability in Desdemona. As she hit
the final “Amen” on the A flat, her voice died down, the sound lingering as
she slowly fell to the floor.
Rounding out the cast
Frederic Antoun sang Cassio with an ardent tone. He moved about with
youthfulness and in the drinking song he sang with accents that really made
the character sound drunk. Thomas Adkins’ was a confident Rodrigo while Kai
Ruutel had a full-bodied sound as Emilia. Simon Shibambu and In Sung Sim
rounded the out a solid cast.
The new production by Keith Warner plays on the idea of shadows and traps.
The production is made of black walls with squares and rectangles. The walls
change forms to create different sets and correspondingly different effects.
Warner keeps the action moving by connecting every act, with the sole
exception of the final one, which is a bit of a letdown considering how
well-paced the opera is.
Nevertheless, there are many striking
moments. During the drinking song, Warner has the walls move in and out,
creating a dizzying effect that emphasizes Cassio’s inebriated state.
The duet is given a dreamlike quality, the backdrop set to a sunset with
beautiful blue clouds and the walls creating the image of a bedroom. As the
act ends Otello and Desdemona enter this latter space and one sees the two
about to go to sleep. The dream, however, is broken by Iago as he enters and
pushes the bedroom out of the way, covering the stage in black.
the second Act, “Dove Guardi” is performed with the chorus behind a wall.
Upon Desdemona’s entrance, the walls are pushed out allowing the children
and adult choruses more freedom.
The third Act sees Iago leave the
stage in full silhouette, creating the sense of a man lurking about in the
shadows, his presence haunting everything and everyone. Otello also becomes
a shadow during the trio as he watches from a distance. One gets a sense of
power, but the shadow quickly dissipates.
During the final scene of
Act three, a huge white lion enters the stage but is quickly taken out,
allowing the backdrop to turn red. The chorus enters in the back and is
constrained to the lower part of the stage, almost as if they were lacking
When the chorus disappears, the walls which moved in and
out are put on a turntable to reveal a destroyed lion and graffiti, an
evocative image that essentially comments on Otello’s emotional state.
It’s also important to talk about the costumes because they tell us
everything about the character. When Desdemona first enters she is wearing a
green cloak that she takes off to reveal a white dress. Only in the Act
three duet does that cloak return but the rest of the time, the white is
constant, expressing the purity of the character. Iago never takes off his
black costume while Otello is given many shades of blue. It’s an interesting
color but it also evokes the demise of the character.
Music director Antonio Pappano couldn’t have been a
better conductor for this impressive cast. He began with a booming sound,
immersing us in. Contrast that with the cello ensemble in the duet as the
cellos performed with schmaltzy slides very much like a singer would do. The
tremulous uproar contrasted very well with the romantic sweep he gave the
orchestra in that duet.
Other highlights included the Act two duet
with Iago and Otello. There was great rhythmic precision to go along with
brisk tempi. There was never a sign of losing control.
orchestra’s highlight was, however, the concertato. Pappano starting with a
tender piano, slowly moving the tempo and the violins, making a crescendo.
Each time the orchestra grew until there was an explosion of sound and the
winds and brass took on their full force without ever covering the strings
During the “Ave Maria,” Pappano imbued the music with
delicacy, the shimmering strings dying down before making a switch to the
ominous footsteps of Otello approaching. The basses slowly sped up until
creating a full uproar that was immediately hushed by the “Bacio” motif,
played with a cathartic crescendo.
The final moments of the opera
were also stunning. It was as if Pappano didn’t want to let go, the strings
holding onto the final chords until they simply withered into nothingness.
It was sublime.
For those in London, it might be hard to get a ticket
because all performances are sold out. But if you have a chance this an
“Otello” for the history books. We will undoubtedly be naming Kaufmann with
the great Otello’s in history for years to come. And he’s just getting