After a compelling Cav & Pag in 2015 – released on DVD by Sony Classical, 5/16 – the Salzburg Easter Festival’s new Otello from 2016 is a bit of a disappointment. There’s a great deal in it of high quality, but those elements fail to come together to create the explosive drama that Verdi’s final tragic masterpiece should present.
First is Vincent Boussard’s production itself, which is stylish and smart but ultimately rather inert and anonymous. Vincent Lemaire’s set is very plain, often consisting of just an open stage or a wall halfway back with a door in it. A recurring motif of billowing material (either real or projected) seems to hint at the sail of Otello’s ship as much as Desdemona’s handkerchief. We also have an ‘angel’, who stalks around the stage with dark wings, often indulging in earnest interactions with the characters – steering their fates, suffering their pain. But it’s never really that clear where we are, or who these people are – and Christian Lacroix’s smart costumes don’t offer many pointers either.
At the head of the cast, José Cura’s Otello is in pretty good shape – he’s been singing the role for nearly two decades now – and his tenor can still deliver plenty of thrills. Dramatically, though, he seems a little ill at ease in his minimalist surroundings, his acting coming across at times as strangely lugubrious. Carlos Álvarez was also Iago in the previous Otello film to come from Salzburg (conducted by Riccardo Muti in 2008, in Stephen Langridge’s more concrete production). Here he sings well but is a rather neutral presence. Dorothea Röschmann, though never really sounding truly Italianate, at least does all she can to give Desdemona some fire: hers is a moving, unusually feisty account of the role. Benjamin Bernheim is an excellent Cassio, and Georg Zeppenfeld stands out for his resonant Lodovico.
The playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden oozes quality, and Christian Thielemann certainly offers an interpretation of imposing grandeur and sonic richness. But it’s not a reading that ever truly gets its hands dirty with what should on occasions be a drama of earthy, visceral passion.
This is a glossy, high-quality Otello with some solid virtues. But that earlier Salzburg film (with the excellent young Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello and an on-form Marina Poplavskaya as Desdemona) makes for more moving viewing.