This production maybe be inspired by old master paintings with its lush palette of Venetian reds and greens to make Tintoretto envious, but the dodgy costumes are more in the Blackadder league and the “blackening” of our leading man a throwback to the 1950s. The aspirations are there but the execution is showing its age rather obviously. Cue in crowd scenes, fire torches, tenors arriving on a Helepolis, painted backdrops inspired by old masters and naturalistic lighting (for the most part).
This is billed as a uber traditional production, but in all honesty it is just conventional and largely predictable. It is the 21st century and we have all moved on from expecting a close simulation of reality to make staged opera exciting. A lighter touch and more ideas are appreciated, but unfortunately Moshinsky shows all the arrogance of today’s most extreme directors but without any ideas informing his embroidered brocade and pillar heavy production. One can only go beyond such a set up with an excellent cast that can reanimate this fossilised relic, which is only useful as memento of the legendary original cast and conductor (Domingo+Ricciarelli+Díaz+Kleiber).
Antonenko has an enviable capacity to sing forward and with incredible propulsion. I could hear some sharp intakes of breath in the audience when he made his big entrance with a rock steady A that must have peeled off some paint from the ceiling. His acting was on par with his vocal production, creating a butch, heavily chiselled masculinity. The only negative was that his voice seems to have a big break in the passaggio, that was particularly disappointing when he was in conversation with Iago and Desdemona creating a raspy, almost hushed, covered tone.
Gallo is and remains more of a buffo baritone, he does lack the vocal heft and darkness to pull off Iago. It was truly unimaginative of the Royal Opera to book him again for this production five years on. He is a fine singer but dramatic roles are totally beyond his camp stage presence and lighter, brighter voice.
Anja Harteros was the absolute highlight of the evening. With immense stage charisma and poise. Her sound was seamless and beautifully propelled across the auditorium. Her delivery at the more lyrical passages was like crushing waves of soft, slow vibrato allowing her to utter the sweetest phrases and the most dramatic passages with equal success. The attention to text and her intense, forceful acting created a much less soft and victimised Desdemona. She was a woman in the middle of a maelstrom but very much with her dignity intact. For any dramatic soprano the final scena containing The Willow Song is a dream come true. A great way to deploy limpid phrasing with shapely melodic flourishes and great acting. I can happily say that Harteros gave us true golden age singing with sincere acting and sinuous vocal production from the top of her range to the very lowest passages. She was dreamy and vulnerable, beautiful and insightful. A mesmerising presence that will remain unforgettable.
Antonio Poli fresh from winning Operalia gave a sweet-voiced and nuanced performance as Cassio. A young artist to watch out for.
Hanna Hipp moved on from her beautiful contribution to Les Troyens and a bubbly addition to Il viaggio a Reims and gave us a very earthy Emilia that added the right amount of alarm during Act Four. A brilliant counterbalance to Harteros and her much more internalised approach for the final scene. Her versatility and stage presence give us great hopes for what she may do in the future, when bigger roles are entrusted to her.
The conducting was of a very high standard, with the drama and the tenderness coming through. The opening storm being augmented with pyrotechnic thuds high above the flytower. Also the dispersed brass, creating an enticing soundscape of the Venetian fleet arriving in Act Three which was very elegant and involving. Unfortunately the sound from the back of the Balcony is not exactly the best but the orchestra and chorus have to be commented for being so professional and alternatively performing Otello with Les Troyens with vitality and gusto. A mention has to be made for the audience on the night which was the quietest I’ve heard there in a long while. Maybe having a rare appearance by Harteros and Antonenko’s super loud Otello took their mind away from munching sweets and having chats with their friends…result!
It was an amazing evening, sadly spoiled by a dull and unimaginative production from the 80s that barely deserves a revival. There are rumours that this was the last hurrah to this production which is a relief. The performance was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3, so look out for it around September and hopefully the sound will convey some of the magic of the evening.