Giuseppe Verdi´s “Otello“ at the Zurich Opera House
By Opera Views, March 5th, 2017
The penultimate opera of the brilliant Giuseppe Verdi could safely be called a long and arduous birth. Boito and Verdi had already worked before as libretto for “Simone Boccanegra” had to be reworked. Countless and fruitless attempts to convince Verdi to compose a new opera remained unproductive. He stated, again and again, his interest towards this idea, but could not be persuaded to make a final decision. Instead, the seventy-year-old composer retired to Sant’ Agata, founded the Casa di Riposo by the Musicisti in Milan, and was appointed Senator in 1874. The fact that the opera world is in possession of “Otello” is due to the perseverance and determination of Verdi’s publisher Ricordi and Boito.
In 1879, Verdi finally bought the libretto, but without making any obligation. It was only years later in 1884 when Verdi began to work on “Otello”, which lasted three years until being completed. On February 5, 1887, at the La Scala in Milan, the premiere took place under the direction of Franco Faccio and became an indescribable triumph. The performance on March 5th, 2017, in Zurich was packed with the audience and began with a charming announcement by the director Andreas Homoki: the singer of Otello is ill but will sing the performance, though with a cough. A relieved sigh went through the audience, and the performance went on!
A giant kiss projected on the curtain tuned up to a beautiful if also sad love story. However, after only a few minutes it became apparent: This is not only about love, but about war, a modern war, precisely: An East-West conflict. The entire orchestra was immediately elaborated with chromatic, ruthless sound sequences in Fortissimo, with brutally rumbling timpani, horns, flutes, as well as dissonant organ clusters. The anguished interlude of the Fuoco choir was framed with images of napalm bombs, burning oil fields and flaming helicopters. The victorious hero Otello sings his “Esultate” on the top of a tank, whose barrel dangerously aimed directly at the audience: a frightening picture.
The stage design by Paul Brown resembles a dark military hangar with burned cars and reminds a desert with tanks and roadblocks. The stylized palm trees symbolise the occupied country. Spacious, noble, richly decorated rooms, where Champagne and canapes are served, present a TV studio, where the rulers enjoy themselves in their splendour during a real-time Live transmission. The costumes, also by Paul Brown, are held in modern military and politically-minded style, but flatter the singers hardly, except for the white wedding dress of the Desdemona.
The stage action on this evening could not be more symbolic or even more up-to-date as on the day of its premiere on 20 November 2011, shortly after Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya. The Swiss election poster, leaned in its message on SVP fluffy posters propaganda proclaiming racial segregation, displays a distorted formula: white plus white = is good, white minus black = is good, black-white = is bad. Behind the oversized image of the “Savior” one could see the poster of the minaret ban initiative, and in the chore “Salvo” a model of the mosque is sunk into the ground with only a cross remains on the stage.
British director Graham Vick based his interpretation on two theses: First, Otello should not necessarily be sung by a black-painted white tenor and second, that one should have zero compassion for him. Thus, in this staging, all singers are white, and Otello is portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, whose killing of Desdemona was nothing more than as a long-term planned honour murder.
There are many beautiful and moving scenes full of symbolic interpretation and deep philosophical meaning. Like in the 1st act when Desdemona, standing on the top of the tank and dressed as a bride, resembles a white dove amidst a war wracks. Alternatively, in II act, when Jago presents his confession of faith, his Credo to the playing in the sand Arab children: A powerful scene. Here one cannot help but wonder: who is the true evil here that shows his malicious seed in the souls of innocent children? Another impressive scene shows Otello in Act III when he alone sits at the table in the middle of the celebrating crowd, covering his face with war paint. He resembles here Leoncavallo’s Canio. We see here a profoundly desperate, broken man, who, despite all his fame, is alien to this society, that does nothing but to exploit him.
As convincing and as technically excellently produced this production might be, the intimate, the real drama and tragic love-story disappears remained uncovered. One feels no empathy for the figures on stage. Otello is a muscle man, immobile and roaring. Jago, a slimy imperialist, sometimes dressed in the Hawaiian shirt, or in uniform, slumbering around and intriguing. Desdemona is an elegant but seemingly naive lady, who keeps her worries hidden under either a headscarf, hat or veil, and who has no clue what so ever about intrigues developing around her. Perhaps it was due to the fact, that the main character was indisposed, or that the cast was the different one to the 2011 cast, but the singers often acted statically, almost lifeless, and somehow disorientated.
Nevertheless, Benjamin Bernheim as Casio impressed with a beautiful lyrical tenor voice and energetic acting. Yulia Mennibaeva as Emilia pleased with warm, velvety mezzo-soprano. Zeljko Lucic as Jago sung with beautifully sounding baritone without demonic harshness. Maria Agresta as Desdemona presented a warm lyric soprano voice and beautiful sounding pianos. She was the only one on this evening, who was cautiously and sensitively accompanied by the orchestra.
Under the button of Maestro Marco Armiliato, the Philharmonia Zurich often played loud, cold and with a brusque sound. Few touching moments such as the Duet in Act I and La Canzone del Salice in Act IV, could not soften this impression. Special praise is given to all four choirs, which were not only perfectly rehearsed (chorus director Jürg Hämmerli), but acted accordingly to the idea and spirit of the stage director and drama.
One in all, this “Otello” surprisingly does not impress by its musical, but by its thoughtful, high-level scenic interpretation that is relatively rare nowadays and thus deserves a praise and full attention. Link to the Zürich Opera “Otello” website