This season it is the 30th anniversary of David Alden’s association with English National Opera the products of his labour have been enjoyed in London for so long and with mixed reactions to make him always a safe bet for a thought provoking take on the old classics. His hand seems more sure and definitive when it tackles less mainstream repertoire and judging from this Otello that still holds true. The new staging in a multi-purpose single set has the usual signature grey tonalities and sparing use of colour, rusty cinnamon and greens deep browns.
Otello is one of Verdi’s works that demands an uninhibited touch with spectacle, like Aida, it is a game of big choral forces and unsubtle arias and the tragic demise of the heroine. Alden’s directorial concept seems to gravitate into making the story of the wrongly blamed and killed Desdemona into a very public drama. Her arena of suffering being a Cypriot town square of the inter war period. His societal approach is a strong suit and very well done when Verdi’s libretto requires it, but this production totally falls flat and stops being engaging when the more domestic parts of the story unfold.
Iago’s Credo is the only intimate part of the evening that truly comes alive. Jonathan Summers steps down from the stage and sits with legs over the pit as he spits out every words as if it soils his mouth one at a time. The intensity of his acting prowess creates a domestic setting out of this Byzantine ruin of a civic square.
For the crucial final scene the lack of a proper domestic setting and the very disappearance of the prerequisite bed are puzzling. Desdemona’s whole frame of mind is informed by her enclosed environment of her bedroom, here a wonderful Leah Crocetto is left running about aimlessly covering the vast empty space Alden has cursed her with. To her immense credit it is very difficult to take one’s eyes off her, despite her young age she holds the audience’s attention with skill and with her exemplary light touch. Even if it is obvious she lacks the stage experience of other singers in the role, she makes up in freshness, gloriously spun phrases and charm.
Alden’s bigger credit is the extremely detailed for Iago, he clearly gave Jonathan Summers a lot of material to chew over and it shows, his presence is not just menacing but radiates self pity and misanthropy. His singing was probably on par with his excellent acting that underpinned the whole production. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rudimentary, bouncer like heaviness of Stuart Skelton. Pouncing on everyone and everything. A particularly ridiculous moment comes when he lifts a leather armchair and stops only short of hurling it into the pit. A ludicrous, monstrous, misjudged personification of Otello that gives him a superficial varnish of thuggery. What is the point of having the vocal goods to sing this part when he lacks the required elegance and acting ability? I am not expecting Shakespearean prowess but do not expect a Jon Vickers tribute act, either. Hope during the run he will loosen up and bounce off more against the more nuanced colleagues on stage and mellow his performance.
The ENO chorus and orchestra had a more mixed night with ensemble problems especially in the first Act. To make the thundering opening of the opera go past in a near whimper was disappointing, but in reality not helped by the way Alden directs it. The Act Three parade of Venetian dignitaries is much more effective by adding more movement and spectacle. And for once the chorus is allowed to be deployed across the stage and widen the sound stage.
If a new production can’t match the impact of Elijah Moshinsky’s ancient Covent Garden show you know you have an issue. Allan Clayton was an exceptional Cassio with wonderful diction and his sweet lyrical tone adding much interest in a character that Verdi spends very little time developing. Not sure why he was portrayed as a drunk, but the sacrilegious fun of using a Madonna and child Byzantine icon as a dart board in a competition with Iago was stroke of genius, as a symbolic finger to the church.
Also the Emilia of Pamela Helen Stephen was exemplary in her personification of the innocent bystander watching in horror of the tragedy unfolding. The angular lighting of Adam Silverman was rather stunning to look at despite only having the one vast set to work with, not exactly giving him much to play with.
No matter how great or not the individual performances were, this production just felt short on emotion and empathy. Totally missing the great opportunity to depict the light and shade world of Verdi’s (maybe) simplistic universe with nuance and variety. Apart from the revelatory Iago the rest of Alden’s ideas felt distinctly uninteresting. Do go and see if you prize spotting young talent at the start of an international career. Leah Crocetto has such immense promise.
Some tweets from the night