Audiences at the Festival Castell de Peralada are evidently less concerned than many in the 21st-century opera world about how best to portray Otello’s racial difference. Paco Azorín’s production features Stuart Neill as a lightly boot-polished Moor replete with oversize golden earring. But it’s actually Iago who is centre stage in the production: before the start we see him with his devilish assistants – clearly kept obedient by regular abuse – warming up, ready to dictate the action.
The staging (filmed outdoors) is a dark, economical affair spread over an enormously wide playing area. It features minimal props but plenty of projections on to a solid brutalist background; and some of those projections seem to reflect Iago’s calculations and indications for how things should unfold. His minions hang about to give Otello’s increasingly paranoid actions a helping hand when necessary. Costumes are classic with a modern twist (some eccentric disc-like ruffs for the Venetians in Act 3 the only real flirtation with the bizarre). At heart, though, it’s essentially a straightforward, traditional show.
And it features some pretty straightforward performances. Neill is tireless as Otello, the voice and diction clear throughout and the stamina impressive. Much of his acting is thoroughly rudimentary but he rises to a moving ‘Nium me tema’ at the end of an honest, heartfelt account of the role. Jessica Nuccio isn’t the most meltingly lyrical or mellifluous Desdemona but she offers a genuinely affecting, touchingly acted performance. Roberto Frontali’s Iago lords over it all imposingly, his powerful baritone allied to the sort of enunciation that always makes it so pleasurable to hear native Italians in this repertoire. There’s similar verbal pleasure to be had from Davide Giusti’s Cassio, even if vocally he’s short on polish.
Polish is also in short supply in the scrappy orchestral playing under Riccardo Frizza, whose conducting is often rather plodding – the drama of the final scene seems to be kept alight primarily through the efforts of Tamta Tarieli’s fiery Emilia. Extra kudos to Nuccia for managing to smile so graciously while being serenaded by a very flat children’s chorus in Act 2, and to the whole company for recovering after the a cappella section of Act 3’s concertato finale sags rather worryingly.
This is a performance with plenty of issues, then, and Antonenko’s early Salzburg Otello under Muti remains my top choice for a recent DVD. Still, it has an admirable straightforwardness, and you might well find yourself warming to its honesty and integrity.